The Modern Era: Punishing Fire And The Will To Survive

Todd gets you up to speed on the upcoming Modern format with an in-depth analysis of the dance between Wild Nacatl and Punishing Fire and shares his thoughts on what he thinks is Modern’s next breakout star.

Over the next few weeks, the attention of the competitive Magic community will be turned to Modern and everything it has to offer. It has already been announced that the next PTQ season will feature Modern as the format of choice, and we already have a lot of interesting decklists to work with from the Magic World Championships. With that said, there is still a chance for WotC to ban or unban cards before the Modern PTQ Season begins, so it is hard to speculate on a format that may or may not have radical changes coming. As it stands, there is a lot that you should know!

With the information we’ve gotten from Worlds, where to begin is pretty clear:

Wild Nacatl is where you want to start, regardless of your opinion on the card. Whether you’re brewing a new 4-color Zoo decklist, or testing a gauntlet full of Tier 1 decks, Wild Nacatl should be the biggest card on your radar at all times. If you can’t beat an aggressive draw featuring this troublesome critter, then you’re in for a world of hurt. I’ve heard a decent amount of people arguing over whether or not they should ban Wild Nacatl, but I think that’s just silly. I have full faith in the Magic community to deal with a 3/3 with no abilities, but perhaps I’m wrong. After all, there was a time when Kird Ape was powerful enough to get the banhammer, but is that really where Wizards wants to push this new format?

Step One: Ban the Good Cards

When a card becomes dominant, it shouldn’t instantaneously be put away. With such a large format like Modern, there are sure to be plenty of cards that go out of their way to break the rules. Wild Nacatl, unlike a lot of cards on the banned list, doesn’t really fit into this category. There are plenty of occasions in Magic where you can see the “power creep” in action, but that doesn’t mean these types of cards are too good. As times progress, we find newer and cooler ways to bend the rules of the game. Little creatures sometimes need a little bit of a boost to deal with cards like Gideon Jura! For crying out loud, how else are we supposed to beat Planeswalkers?

Honestly, Wild Nacatl was “just ok” in Standard. Without access to the Ravnica “Shock Lands,” Wild Nacatl was rarely larger than a 2/2. Maybe the problem isn’t necessarily Wild Nacatl, but the package of Ravnica lands alongside the Zendikar fetchlands. I’m not suggesting we cut these altogether. I think that these are skill intensive cards that are good for the format, as people really enjoy being able to cast their spells. Just because you can play Dark Confidant in the same deck as Lightning Bolt and Bant Charm doesn’t mean the set of lands is too good. After all, the price of this is a hefty toll on your starting life total.

It is possible that there is actually nothing wrong with a 3/3 creature for a single green mana. Without taking a lot of damage from your lands, it is actually incredibly difficult to make Wild Nacatl good. Even then, cards like Blood Moon wreaks havoc on any deck that tries to exploit Wild Nacatl, and burn decks turn Zoo into swiss cheese since they’re taking an average of 7 damage from their first three land drops! As it always does, Zoo will drop off in popularity when people start playing cards that punish them for their manabase.

In the grand scheme of things, Wild Nacatl is just a creature. It doesn’t mill your entire library like Hermit Druid, and it doesn’t come with Batterskull attached at the hip, so what’s the problem? Honestly, I don’t think there is one, and if WotC decides to ban Wild Nacatl, that is going to be a very bad omen for Modern in the future.

I honestly don’t think they’re going to ban Wild Nacatl, but I thought it was worth mentioning since it has been getting a lot of press lately. I love Zoo, and find that the multitude of colors at your disposal is refreshing for an aggro deck. With so many options, you have a lot of cards to choose from in all parts of the deckbuilding process. With so many options, it is easy to pick and choose cards that can help attack the format from a variety of angles. Sometimes it is correct to play the full set of Steppe Lynx in order to race the combo decks. At other times, Baneslayer Angel is the actual nuts. It just depends on what the format is throwing at you, and how you intend to fight it.

Your threats can vary wildly depending on what you’re trying to beat, as well as how you want to build your manabase. Your disruption and removal also depends on what you’re trying to attack. Cards like Spell Pierce and Bant Charm can give your deck an unexpected twist and really put your opponent on their back foot, while a card like Tribal Flames adds a bit of raw power to your arsenal. If you know what decks you’re trying to beat, then you can figure out what combination of lands and spells to play.

Moving on, there is one degenerate combo that I wanted to talk about. Modern has been hit with a lot of bannings since its inception earlier this year, but this one managed to slip under the radar because Cloudpost and Rite of Flame were in the format. In my eyes, there is only one combo left that doesn’t play fair, and really has no drawback. It can fit in virtually any deck with ease and completely negates entire aggressive strategies. Of course, most of you all already know what I’m talking about.

Step Two: Break the Cards We’ve Got

While Punishing Fire isn’t really the culprit, I could see them trying to send it away rather than the dual land. After all, the cycle of Future Sight dual lands heralded the potential for future cycles revolving around those mechanics. Punishing Fire and Kavu Predator are the only two cards I can think of that literally abuse the life-gain from Grove of the Burnwillows, and I wouldn’t want to stifle the creative process later down the line. Punishing Fire, on top of being an awkward trigger effect, was a great idea when it was created. It was built for red mages to be able to fight off the life-gain effects of the opponent, but Grove of the Burnwillows turned that notion on its head.

While Grove of the Burnwillows is just a reverse Karplusan Forest, you can see where giving your opponent something can be a little bit better than just managing your own resources (see Donate). To me, this is one of the bigger reasons why no one tries out other aggressive strategies besides Wild Nacatl, because it so easily gets around this degenerate combo. While Punishing Fire can’t do a lot of damage on its own, just imagine what it can do when combined with a dedicated engine.

Enter Pyromancer Ascension.

While you may not quite understand the implications of these two cards being in the same format, let me break it down for you. Turning Punishing Fire into a recurring 4-damage spell is just absurd, and will completely wreck most aggressive and control strategies it comes up against. For reference, here is the list I’ve been toying around with on Magic Online for the past few days:

Since WotC is focusing on keeping degenerate combos out of the format, more oppressive strategies like this that are harder to disrupt will creep in to take their place. While you don’t have Ponder and Preordain fueling the fire, Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand take their place quite nicely. Gitaxian Probe and Manamorphose are just filler cards, but they can help trigger the Pyromancer Ascension very easily and give you combo-esque draws early in the game. When active, it really starts to feel like you’re a combo deck. While you’re a bit grindier than most combo decks, you have inevitability. You will be able to kill most creatures that are thrown at you, and Cryptic Command is very good at keeping bigger problems at bay.

While this deck feels like a combo deck on paper, it plays out very much like a control deck. You don’t have a big, flashy spell that ends the game on the spot, but you do have some cards that tend to overwhelm your opponent quickly. Both Punishing Fire and Pyromancer Ascension provide you with advantages outside of interacting with each other, which forces your opponent to deal with both problems instead of just one. It is incredibly difficult for most people to kill a Pyromancer Ascension in the first game, meaning that you will rarely have to protect it. If you expect a decent amount of hate after the first game, you can always turn into “Next Level Blue” and just beat them to death with Tarmogoyfs.

Pyromancer Ascension is a strange card, and one that feels fairly degenerate given the right set of tools. If left uncontested, it is very difficult for a fair deck to win against such a powerful engine. When every spell draws you an additional card, it will be impossible for anyone to fight you on your level. At a point, you can even start using Cryptic Commands to bounce your opponents lands two at a time, ensuring that they’ll never be able to play as many spells in one turn as you can. With Punishing Fire active alongside Pyromancer Ascension, few creatures will be able to apply pressure.

The weaknesses of a deck like this are mostly the dedicated combo decks that are trying to kill you via Storm, but these have lost a lot of power with the recent bannings. Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens are very tough for you to interact with, but aren’t unbeatable. Mindbreak Trap helps a lot against those strategies, but you are incredibly resilient to almost everything else. Control and aggro strategies will have a tough time figuring out how to beat you. With so much card selection, destroying a single Pyromancer Ascension is not going to slow you down too much. Without a clock, you will have a ton of time to find whatever you are looking for.

Punishing Fire is also one of the reasons why you should build your Zoo deck a certain way. Cards like Steppe Lynx aren’t going to cut it right now, and you’ll need to be bringing Loam Lions and Kird Apes to the party unless Punishing Fire or Grove of the Burnwillows gets the hammer. I’ve been brewing up new combinations of threats to attack the format from an angle they aren’t expecting, but a lot of my inspiration comes from Team CFB’s Zoo list from Worlds, featuring Snapcaster Mage. While Snapcaster Mage is a bit mana intensive, he fills the same roles as he does in the Illusions deck in Standard: reach and card advantage.

With that said, you usually still need to pack a punch in the end. Knight of the Reliquary has always been the go-to-threat, but why? Before, we were playing awesome lands like Treetop Village, but now we’re just playing it as a large monster for three mana. The problem here is that Knight of the Reliquary, without additions like Kessig Wolf Run and the like, is just a large creature that dies to ordinary removal. We can do better.

Step Three: Attack

Geist of Saint Traft in every format! Geist of Saint Traft for president!

As you can see, we’ve already ascended to the next level. Assuming the format stays the same after the next B&R List Announcement, Geist of Saint Traft will be the future of Zoo. For a paltry three mana, you get a hexproof creature that presents six power worth of “beast mode” for your opponent to deal with. Even combo decks will usually be playing some amount of spot removal to buy time, but Geist of Saint Traft will have none of it.

With removal spells to get the opposing annoyances out of the way, Geist of Saint Traft is just as good (if not better) in Modern as it is in Standard. Path to Exile is excellent in the deck, and Lightning Bolt is no slouch either. Combine this with Snapcaster Mage and I’m sure you’re starting to see the picture. With Punishing Fire on the rise, expect cards that get around it to become very popular. In turn, this might cause Firespout to rise in stock, but I wouldn’t expect people to adapt very quickly. After all, Firespout still doesn’t kill Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary very often, and I expect most people to be sticking with Knights for now.

Zoo is a powerful strategy, and this is just one way to build it to attack an underdeveloped format. As the PTQ season progresses, I’ll keep you posted with new builds and additions to the deck to keep things interesting.

When Modern events start to fire on Magic Online, you can expect to see some sweet video content featuring the newer format. Until then, I’ll try to bring you guys a few different videos featuring Standard brews and popular decks. While Illusions is still my bread and butter, I’d rather provide you guys with a change of pace instead of just bombarding you with the same deck over and over. While I think that the videos featuring Illusions were helpful to a decent amount of people, I want to explore new territory myself. Without trying out new decks, I’m sure to fall into a rut. Without innovation, I’ll begin to fall behind.

I’m going to be doing a ton of traveling over the holidays, heading home to see friends and family, but I’ll try my best to bring you solid content when I can. As I get more playtesting in with the above decks, I’ll be able to provide solid analysis of matchups, as well as sideboarding guides and helpful tidbits. As of now, Modern is still a very strange animal to me, but I feel like I thrive in these kinds of formats.

Happy Holidays to everyone, and thanks for reading!


strong sad on MOL

Bonus Mini-Article!

LOL Mana Leak and Rolling Dice for Dollars

If anyone has seen my Legacy list from the SCG Charlotte Legacy Open Top 8, I’m sure there were a few double-takes. For reference, here is my list:

A lot of you may look at some of the card choices and chuckle, but I assure you that each decision was well thought out and has solid reasoning behind it. As most of you know, Chris VanMeter has been doing very well with Stoneblade in recent Legacy Opens, and this list is based on his original design. For starters, Spell Snare is absolutely insane, and I wouldn’t recommend playing fewer than four of them. I only played three in the Invitational, and I realized just how wrong I was in hindsight.

While Counterspell was seeing some play from Chris, I noticed that I just couldn’t cast it reliably against a deck packing Wasteland. Additionally, Snapcaster Mage would rarely be able to flash it back due to the high number of colorless and white-only producing lands in the deck. With so many people having low curves and skimping on mana sources, I assumed Mana Leak would be superior, and I’m pretty sure I was right. Counterspell was atrocious for me in testing, but Mana Leak was very good for me in the Legacy Open. While it won’t always counter what you need it to counter, the benefit you gain from being able to use it with Snapcaster Mage, as well as so many non-blue lands, I think it is sufficient.

The singleton Oblivion Ring was a nod to the rise of Counterbalance, but it is just a solid card. Not a lot of things in Legacy give a U/W deck answers to a variety of threats, so Oblivion Ring fills a very tiny hole in what was previously your soft spot. I knew that it was perfect for the deck when I used it to kill a Grindstone in the very first round, and again when I took out my opponent’s Batterskull in Round 6.

The Spell Pierces are better than Flusterstorm against a lot of decks, and I wouldn’t recommend making that switch. Flusterstorm has virtually no impact on decks relying on artifacts and enchantments, while Spell Pierce can be bananas.

Geist of Saint Traft is almost singlehandedly the reason why I went undefeated in the Swiss. Having played against five mirrors, he crushed people who didn’t have their own. Once equipped with any sort of Sword, Jitte, or Batterskull, he is basically unstoppable. Geist of Saint Traft can’t be Spell Snared or Spell Pierced, which is huge in the mirror. People don’t have a way to interact with him other than blockers, but you can usually keep those off the table with Spell Snare and Swords to Plowshares. I feel like I’m overhyping Geist of Saint Traft a bit lately, but he really is just bonkers in almost every format. I haven’t played Vintage with him yet, but it really can’t be that bad there either!

After losing in the Top 8 to Tony Chu, I realized something. This was the first time I lost a game in the mirror all day. I was able to singlehandedly take apart my opponents so long as I drew okay. Against Tony, I was forced to Brainstorm early to dig for lands, bricked, and promptly died to his Wastelands. Afterwards, we went out to Buffalo Wild Wings with some friends for dinner.

Shortly after our arrival, we spotted a wild Brian Kibler roaming the bar. We invited him to join us in our game of “flip the tile.” For those of you unfamiliar with “flip the tile” (as you should be), basically you have a bag of tiles from a game (like Scrabble or Acquire) and get someone to name a random tile. Everyone puts in an ante, and you go around clockwise pulling out tiles until someone hits the named tile. The winner gets the money. We played about 10-15 games of “flip the tile,” and we even had a few of our friends who came in late joining in. Most of the time, we would just toss the winnings to the waitress because we were being incredibly obnoxious, but it was a lot of fun.

During the entirety of “flip the tile,” Matt Eitel, Kibler, and myself were keeping ourselves busy by rolling dice for rounds of Jager Bombs. I only lost one round, so I ended up getting about six free drinks out of the deal. Kibler’s tab of 12 wings and 9 shots ended up being fairly hefty, but the fun didn’t stop there. After losing all of the games of “flip the tile,” I started to get a bit restless. I pulled out a $20, as did Kibler, and Matt Eitel. We rolled die to see who would scoop the pot. Luckily, I didn’t come in last, but Kibler pulled in $60 to help out his enormous tab.

Then things started to get nuts. I was laughing but still pissed that I just lost $20. Matt Eitel was still pretty eager to gamble, so he pulled out a $100 bill and casually slammed it on the table. I looked at Kali with her eyes glowing and her lips curled into a smile. She was having a lot of fun, and I think I caught her just at the perfect time for a bit of “high stakes” die rolling. I pulled out a $100, looked at her, and said “Stop me now or forever hold your peace.” She sighed that big sigh and looked out the window to her left, so I said, “Let’s go!”

We picked up three dice, rolling one at a time. With Matt rolling first, I knew what I’d be up against. His first roll was a 4, which could really go either way. I picked up one of the dice and rolled my first roll and watched it tumble onto its side into a 1. Blech. Luckily for me, Matt’s next roll was a 1 as well, giving me an opportunity to catch up. I slung my second roll, hoping for something big, and hit a 6! With things looking good for me now, Matt had to roll something decent to stay in the game. He picked up his last roll, slung it against our makeshift wall, and I stared wide-eyed, heart racing, hands trembling, as the die spun down and landed face up.

A one stared me in the face, and I knew I’d won. Kali let out a gasp and high-fived me, then called me an idiot for betting so much on a stupid die roll. I don’t blame her, but sometimes you gotta get big. She was smiling the whole time, so I didn’t take the jab too seriously. As we finished our last drinks, we saw Alex Bertoncini walk into the restaurant holding his gigantic novelty check.

“Wanna roll for $10K?”

For those of you wondering, I spent a little over a month being sober, and I was grateful for the perspective it gave me on where I was heading. Drinking can be a problem when you do it for the wrong reasons. I was at an unstable point in my life and constantly drinking to get drunk as opposed to “just having a drink with friends.” There is a pretty big difference and one I wasn’t really able to see and control before. I don’t plan on drinking a beer at every meal or getting wasted every weekend, but I’m not going to hinder myself from having a good time either. The key is to balance the two so it doesn’t take control of your life.

In all seriousness, gambling is not something you should take too lightly either. It can easily get out of hand, but if you do it with friends, it can be a lot of fun. If a little drinking is involved, it can get a bit dangerous, and you should never gamble with money that you don’t have to spend. My goal for these types of stories is purely entertainment, and not to endorse something degenerate. While I put myself out there and on the line, I don’t recommend it for anyone leading a “normal life.” My choices are mine to make, and I am okay with the consequences those choices bring.

I hope you enjoyed.