I am writing this article under duress. Craig has been sending ninjas to try to capture me and take me to the StarCityGames dungeon, to force me to sit down and write the articles that I keep on promising him. He hasn’t succeeded, but the ninjas have exacted a terrible toll on the goblins I keep around my flat and I want them to stop.
The set of articles that I have been promising him have been about Red decks building better decks and making better plays. For each topic, these articles would collate the best of other people’s writing, and where necessary explain bits of it, for the benefit of those who enjoy Mike Flores‘ writing but struggle to keep up when the strategy is mixed in with an analysis of the summer 1999 Type II metagame, and use actual examples to show how the theory gets applied in practice, and how you can use it to improve your game.
I am hoping that this series will join others such as The Magic University and Untold Legends Of The Million Dollar Magic The Gathering™ Pro Tour as overly ambitious ideas that never get completed. And I thought I would start this series by writing about my favourite part of Magic: where you defeat your opponent by attacking them with creatures and then casting burn spells to fry them to a crisp.
The scenario is this. You are Tomoharu Saito, of the Kajiharu 80 team, playing in the semi finals of Pro Tour: Charleston against Kazuya Mitamura. Your match is tied 1-1, and one of your team mates has won, and one has lost, so this game will decide whether or not you make it through to the final of the Pro Tour. Here’s the situation:
In hand: Lightning Helix, Demonfire, Char.
In play: Rakdos Guildmage, Skyknight Legionnaire.
7 mana (at least three of which is Red, one is Black, and one is White).
In play: Skeletal Vampire, two bats.
7 mana (including at least one Green, two Black, two White, and Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree).
4 cards in hand
The decklists can be found here – you have had a chance to see Mitamura’s decklist before the match, but don’t know how he has sideboarded. He has Carven Caryatid and Last Gasp in his graveyard, along with one Castigate. As an aside, you can download the online video coverage if you want exact details about how the game progressed up to this point; I’m just providing the necessary information from my notes which I took as the game occurred.
Saito spent some time thinking about this, in consultation with his teammates. Assuming his opponent doesn’t make a mistake, he cannot win this turn, but has a number of decisions to make, ranging from which burn spells to cast, whether to target Mitamura or his Vampire, whether or not to use the Guildmage to make Goblins, whether or not to attack. Based solely on the information so far, what would you do, and why?
This scenario is one that really tests the skills of the Red deck player. Here’s what I think are the key factors to consider:
Is it possible or worthwhile to try to get your creatures to be able to deal damage, or are you going to have to rely on your burn spells?
If you have a 2/2 creature, and your opponent has a 2/2 creature and is on twenty life, and you have a Shock in your hand, then it is usually better to use your Shock to kill their creature and to attack then to cast the Shock at your opponent. This is because while you deal the same amount of damage, you end up with a 2/2 creature that can potentially deal more damage. This is why in the early part of the game, Red decks will usually use their burn spells to remove the opponent’s creatures and clear a path for their creatures to attack.
If you have a 2/2 creature, and have two burn spells each of which deal four damage, and your opponent is on ten life and has just played an 8/8 creature, then it is usually better not to use your burn spells on the creature, but instead to switch to using them on your opponent. This is because if you use them on the creature and then attack for two, and then your opponent plays another big creature or removes your creature, you are much less likely to win than if you use both your burn spells on your opponent and try to draw another source of direct damage before you die.
So as an extremely crude rule, in the first few turns, it is better to use burn spells on creatures, and in the later game it is better to use it on opponents.
How quickly can I kill my opponent with the cards in my hand, creatures in play, and cards I might draw? Is that quicker than they can kill me?
If you have a 1/1 creature, no cards in hand and your opponent is on twenty life, then almost regardless of their deck, you are unlikely to win, because given twenty turns, more or less any deck will be able to execute its preferred strategy. In contrast, if you have more creatures than your opponent, burn spells in your hand which can deal a total of more damage than their life total (what I call “overload damage”), and they have no cards in their hand, then you are extremely likely to win, and the important thing is to figure out the quickest way to do so before they can recover. Intermediate scenarios include ones where they have more creatures than you, but they are on lower life and you will win if you draw one more burn spell (as Craig Jones did when drawing a Lightning Helix one turn before he would have died in a Pro Tour semi final), and where you are playing against a deck which sets up a combination and kills you all in one turn – in which case you need to work out whether they are going to try to implement their combination on their next turn, or whether you have two or more turns in which to maximise the amount of damage that you can do.
What could go wrong?
There are different things that can go wrong when trying to kill your opponent. Some of the most common are:
- They stop your creatures from dealing damage, usually by playing removal spells, or bigger creatures.
- They stop your burn spells from dealing damage, by using counterspells, spells which prevent players being targeted or which prevent damage, like the Circle of Protection: Red, which you are not to be scared of.
- They gain life. It can be extremely annoying when you are just about to deal them the final three points of damage with your last burn spell, and then they go and gain four more life.
- They take cards out of your hand before you can play them. Hand destruction can mess up carefully laid plans to finish an opponent off.
Taking each of these three questions in turn, we find that it would indeed be possible to deal damage by attacking with creatures (I’ll come back later to the question of whether or not it is worthwhile to do so). The Rakdos Guildmage can create one Goblin this turn, and potentially two next turn if we draw another land, which would give us four creatures, in addition to any future ones that we draw. To deal damage this turn with the creatures that we have available, however, would require the use of a burn spell, to force the Vampire to regenerate and thereby getting rid of one of the bats.
It is worth taking into account that even if our creatures don’t deal another point of damage, it would be possible to use a combination of Char, Lightning Helix, and Demonfire to win the game over the next two turns.
Which leads us on to the second question. There is no danger of losing the game on Mitamura’s next turn, as he cannot deal twenty damage. We cannot win the game this turn, but have a variety of plays that win us the game in two turns, providing…
That nothing goes wrong. This is where it gets difficult. Mitamura has the ability to remove creatures (with Last Gasp, Mortify, Putrefy and Angel of Despair). He can gain life with Loxodon Hierarch, which he can use Congregation of Dawn to fetch. And he can take cards out of our hand with Castigate.
So if, for example, we use our burn spells to remove his creatures, then he might just be able to remove our creatures and leave us with no burn spells, and him still on nine life with the ability to summon lots of big creatures.
If we ignore his creatures and just try to burn him out, then he might use Castigate to take away the spell we were planning to use to finish him off, or use Loxodon Hierarch to negate the damage and leave himself with a Skeletal Vampire, some bats and a 4/4 against our two 2/2s.
Saito and his teammates thought about all of this, and here’s what they came up with.
They cast Lightning Helix on the Vampire, tapping it, made a goblin with the Guildmage’s ability, and attacked.
Mitamura blocked the goblin with a bat, and took four damage, falling to five.
In his turn, he cast Loxodon Hierarch, going back up to nine life, and cast Mortify on the Guildmage.
Saito drew Rise / Fall and cast it, netting two irrelevant cards from Mitamura.
On Mitamura’s turn, he tapped four mana and cast…
Nothing. Instead, he created a token with Vitu-Ghazi. Saito cast Char on him, untapped, and then cast Demonfire for the rest of his life points, to advance to the final of the Pro Tour.
Back at home in Oxford, I was watching this over the Internet. Although Saito won, I think there is a superior line of play.
On Mitamura’s last turn, if he had another Hierarch, or a Castigate, then Saito would have been in a very difficult position, and could possibly even have lost. I think my line of play would have avoided this danger.
What I would have done would have been to give up on trying to force through any more creature damage, and instead cast Demonfire at Mitamura for six damage, leaving him on three.
Then when he cast Hierarch and Putrefy, I would have untapped and cast Char and Lightning Helix, which would have won the game a turn quicker than Saito’s actual play.
Of course, when making his decision, Saito did not know the contents of Mitamura’s hand. But even if we consider some alternatives, I think Saito made the wrong play.
If instead of the Hierarch, Mitamura had had a Castigate, my play would still have won the game on the next turn, as he could only take one of my two game-winning spells. If he had two Castigates, then he would still have been on three life with Saito’s deck about half full of burn spells, and even drawing land allowing him to make two Goblins and attack him Mitamura down to one life. It is also extremely unlikely that Saito would have two Castigates in his hand, having cast one earlier in the game. If Mitamura had a land and two Hierarchs in his hand, which he could cast on the following turn, then either Saito’s play or mine would rely on topdecking burn spells to win, though again this is an improbable situation because the odds of Mitamura having two Hierarchs and not having decided to cast them earlier are extremely low. If he had a Castigate and a Hierarch, then my play leaves Saito in a better situation than his does, as Mitamura is on seven life with four creatures against two creatures and a Lightning Helix in hand, as opposed to being on nine life with three creatures against two and a Char in hand.
In one way, none of this matters, as Saito went on to win the game and Pro Tour… and the format that his deck was played in is now obsolete for competitive Magic purposes. But the skills of recognising when to use your burn spells to clear a path for your creatures and when to target the opponent, how to manage your creatures in play and cards in hand to win the game as quickly as possible when you are ahead, and to think through the different things which might go wrong with your plan, are skills which you will be able to use time and time again.
When playing a Red deck, there are some games where you get a great start and smash your opponent in about two minutes. Anyone can win them. Then there are other games when your opponent deals with all your creatures and you never even get close to dealing twenty damage. But the games which make or break your chances are the ones where you get your opponent down to just a few life points before they kill you, or where you topdeck that last burn spell to win the game one turn before you would have been defeated. Even Pro Tour winners can get better at increasing their chances of winning, rather than losing, those games, and I hope this article has gone some little way to explaining how you can too.
For further reading on this subject, I recommend:
Zvi Mowshowitz guide to playing against counterspells, here and here. I actually wrote an article about how to decide whether to cast your last burn spell to finish off your opponent if you think they might have a counterspell, only to discover (much to my annoyance) that Zvi had covered the subject of playing against counterspells in much greater depth and with much greater clarity. He also covers the issue of deciding which play is most likely to win the game here and here.
Mike Flores on the Philosophy of Fire explains how decks with burn spells are like combo decks, found here. If you “get” the Philosophy of Fire, then you will find it much easier to plan ahead about how your Red deck is going to deal the twenty or more damage required to win the game.
If you haven’t seen it, you should also check out how to avoid getting The Fear.
Lastly, to get a feeling for what it’s like to play a Red deck and topdeck that burn spell when you need it most, Craig Jones will tell you all about it here.