The Red Hero’s Downfall & Tribute!

Patrick Chapin takes a look at two spoiled Born of the Gods cards and evaluates their playability in Standard. Let him know which cards he should cover next in the comments!

Can I axe you a question?

You know what the problem with red aggro decks is? Okay, maybe there is more than one problem with them at the moment, but one of the biggest is Jace, Architect of Thought. A turn 4 Jace against an opponent with three two-power creatures soaks up six damage the first turn and still has enough loyalty to either draw some cards or prevent a ton more damage the next turn. Heaven forbid they have a Supreme Verdict or some other way to punish the red deck.

Now, here’s the real nightmare. Let’s suppose they already Verdicted on turn 4 and all you have is one more two-power creature to follow up with. A Jace in this position can be game over. Even if a Lightning Strike wouldn’t get you out of it.

Born of the Gods preview season is finally under way, and one of the first cards spoiled is a weapon for fighting just such battles.

Dire Flames




Deal 5 damage to target creature or planeswalker. If it is your turn, scry 2.

It’s not 100% clear if this is the actual English name, as the info from our friends over at MTG Salvation is based on a Spanish buy-a-box promo. What is known however is that this is the game text and that this is the buy-a-box promo for everyone.

That’s not a typo by the way. Dire Flames really does hit creatures or planeswalkers, not players. Why?

So the card can cost four instead of six.

Red doesn’t get many burn spells that deal this kind of damage at better rates than X spells, and when it does they have an impact on tournament play. Shrapnel Blast and Brimstone Volley each had pretty hefty drawbacks, and Beacon of Destruction cost five . . .

But wait! That’s not all! Order during your turn and receive a complimentary scry 2 while supplies last!

How good is scry 2?

Maybe half a card?

Dire Flames is clearly a “developer card,” meaning it ended up in the strange shape that it is in as a function of development needs for the format. This strongly suggests that WotC believes this card will be Constructed playable.

A developer card is a card that is loudly engineered to perfectly accomplish some goals in the format at the expense of elegance or intuition. For instance, Dire Flames doesn’t hit players even though at first glance it seems like it should. It only scrys on your turn (though this might be a set mechanic in some form). It costs triple red, which is obviously unusual for a cheap-ish burn spell.

Why all these conditions and clauses? R&D could have just cleaned it up and made it cost five or six or perhaps just reduced the damage it deals to four or any number of other changes that could have helped balance it with a cleaner template.

Except this card was bred for a purpose.

If it only dealt four, a Jace that comes into play and +1s would live. If it cost more mana, the Jace player could untap and counter it, or worse the red mage might not have enough mana. Not hitting players knocks at least two mana off the cost by itself, and the triple red helps make up for the scry ability. If the scry ability was always on, we might need the cost to be five anyway.

Why would R&D engine such a card?

Hero’s Downfall has revolutionized Standard, and Dire Flames attempts to give another color access to this sort of effect. It’s not just Jace, Architect of Thought that puts so much pressure on the format. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion? Goes to five. Garruk, Caller of Beasts? Goes to five. Domri Rade? He only goes to four, but costing only three he comes down a turn early and often gets to five before one would have a chance to Flames it.


Not at all. These are the creme de la creme planeswalkers at the moment, and one of their major selling points is a starting loyalty that gives them survivability. That is the real key to Dire Flames. It is just a little bigger than most burn spells and just big enough to actually get the job done that we need.

Wait, why does Dire Flames cost four instead of three, like Hero’s Downfall?

Good question. First of all, Hero’s Downfall is above rate. They are not going to make cards like Hero’s Downfall every day, and putting it in a second color is not something good to do at a pushy rate all the time. That said, Dire Flames has one huge advantage over Hero’s Downfall, which is the scry 2.

Generally, when playing a red deck, you really don’t want to draw any more lands once you’re at four. On average you have somewhere around 0.7 lands in your top two cards if you are playing red aggro. Already it is like Dire Flames drew you 0.7 of a card (over the next two turns), and that doesn’t factor in the value of putting a Lightning Strike on the bottom when what you really need are threats. Notice that this is different than Magma Jet because when you have two mana not every land is a “dead draw.”

Is this the next Hero’s Downfall?

Well, in a way it is, but it won’t be anywhere near as ubiquitous. Four is an extremely crowded spot on the curve, and frankly an extra red mana for scry 2 some of the time is fine. But this doesn’t kill Desecration Demon. This doesn’t kill planeswalkers about to ultimate. This doesn’t kill Boros Reckoner without repercussion.

There are basically three types of decks that might want Dire Flames. First, obviously red aggro. A big burn spell that isn’t dead against control is pretty appealing even if the cost isn’t. If these show up in the maindeck of red aggro, it will likely be in small numbers to avoid getting cluttered in your hand.

It’s possible that you want to sideboard these, but it’s a slightly strange sideboard card in that part of what you are paying for is the general utility against everyone. Still, having it against control is huge. Not only does it kill Jace and Elspeth, but it also takes down Blood Baron of Vizkopa and the greedy (but not uncommon) turn 6 Aetherling.

It’s also the perfect card against Polukranos, a card that has traditionally been problematic for red decks. Red is supposed to be vulnerable to fatties, and Dire Flames turns this weakness around. If it weren’t for how inefficient this card is against devotion decks and white aggro, I’d be all for maindecking a couple. However, the format (at least as it stands pre-Born of the Gods) leads me to want it to be more of a sideboard card (where three is the first number that comes to mind but two and four are totally defensible).

The kind of deck that might want Dire Flames is some sort of control deck. Sphinx’s Revelation, Supreme Verdict, and Detention Sphere suggest U/W/R, though that triple red is not insignificant. Of course, if you want to be able to Mizzium Mortars, you can’t be that far off. The real issue is just how crowded the four spot gets, with Jace and Verdict off top and Warleader’s Helix fighting for space.

What about U/R though? Anger of the Gods actually goes a long way towards addressing the lack of Verdict, and Opportunity is no Sphinx’s Revelation but helps. The single biggest thing missing has been a Hero’s Downfall, a Detention Sphere, or some other versatile and efficient answer to planeswalkers.

U/R Control by Patrick Chapin

1 Aetherling
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
1 Elixir of Immortality
2 Ratchet Bomb
2 Turn // Burn
2 Syncopate
4 Mizzium Mortars
3 Counterflux
1 Dissolve
3 Divination
4 Anger of the Gods
4 Dire Flames
3 Opportunity
2 Mutavault
2 Temple of Triumph
4 Steam Vents
4 Izzet Guildgate
7 Mountain
7 Island
2 Pithing Needle
1 Counterflux
4 Gainsay
1 Turn // Burn
3 Jace, Memory Adept
2 Shock
2 Izzet Staticaster

Even with Sphinx’s Revelation, Elixir of Immortality might be exactly the right endgame for us. We have a lot of card draw and can “go off” if the game goes long enough. Counterflux can be huge in control semi-mirrors, as we can sometimes let them draw all the cards they want and just counter Elixir of Immortality (and maybe Aetherling). Besides, one of the biggest holes in U/R Control is the lack of life gain. An extra five life would go a long way!

Beyond that this is just classic card draw and one-for-ones, with Anger of the Gods, Mizzium Mortars, and Ratchet Bomb to sweep the board. Ratchet Bomb is a clunky way to do it but combines with Dire Flames (and Pithing Needle out of the board) to give us a lot more protection against planeswalkers.

Ratchet Bomb also gives us a first line of defense against artifacts and enchantments but does nothing to help out weakness to Gods like Thassa and Erebos. Fortunately, Turn // Burn gives us something. We need two-mana plays anyway, so having outs to big creatures like Desecration Demon without using up extra slots is nice.

It’s not totally clear to me why we are going through all this trouble just to avoid white, but one possibility is to marry this shell with Burning Earth. You could cut the Mutavaults for more basics (or not?) and slide some Burning Earths into the board in order to combat three-color control decks. If anyone tries to Kiora, the Crashing Wave our Burning Earth, we can light her up with our new found Dire Flames powers!

While I did not include any Chandra, Pyromasters on account of my liberal use of permission, it’s a totally reasonable direction to go and even does little things like combine with Dire Flames to actually kill a Desecration Demon. Besides, just drawing an extra card every turn is a big game.

What is this deck looking for to be competitive? A compelling reason to do this instead of play white. Maybe Burning Earth is that reason, but I’m skeptical. One good reason might be if the format happens to fight Sphinx’s Revelation, Supreme Verdict, and Detention Sphere in ways that do not create splash damage for this deck.

Overall, I think Dire Flames is a worse Detention Sphere for U/W/R and a worse Hero’s Downfall / Dreadbore for Grixis, it is an automatic staple for U/R, and if somehow RUG becomes a thing it is automatically worth considering. The tough thing there is that RUG likely involves Polukranos and Plasm Capture and Kiora are fighting for attention.

We mentioned earlier that there are three basic types of decks that could adopt Dire Flames. The third is some nonblue midrange deck. Dreadbore and Hero’s Downfall mostly overshadow Dire Flames, but some slow Naya deck might be into this sort of thing (if it is into reactive cards at all). There’s also the possibility that some sort of Big Boros deck wants help against walkers. Technically it could also mean R/G, but R/G decks rarely want slow reactive cards and there’s a lot of competition at the four-spot if you go that route.

Depending on what other support exists in Born of the Gods, there’s also an outside chance that this set gives birth to some sort of dedicated scry deck. There are a lot of reasonable scry cards, and the Temples are just fantastic. If we can just scrounge up one good incentive to scry, it could be a thing.

4 Omenspeaker
4 Magma Jet
4 Dissolve
3-4 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Dire Flames
2 Prognostic Sphinx
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of Malice
4 Steam Vents
8 Mountain
6 Island
Spark Jolt?
Voyage’s End?
Read the Bones?

Flamespeaker Adept isn’t the kind of incentive we are looking for, but if there is some kind of a Lightning Rift, well, now we’re talking.

Verdict: Role Player

The other card I’d like to talk about today is Wild Nessian Devastator, another card that very well may have a slightly different real name since our spoiler comes via a Spanish Prerelease poster. However, the text we are confident in.

Wild Nessian Devastator



Tribute 6 (As this creature enters the battlefield, an opponent of your choice may put 6 +1/+1 counters on it)

When Wild Nessian Devastator enters the battlefield, if its tribute wasn’t paid, it fights another target creature.


Tribute it a new keyword that puts your opponent between a rock and a hard place. They can either make your creature much larger or give you some bonus. I suspect this will lead to a lot of fun games, though it is amusing how easy it is to mistake this for upside when really it is a drawback mechanic.

A drawback?

Yeah, in general the card above is worse than:


When ~ enters the battlefield, it fights another target creature.


After all, at worst they are the same, and every time you have a Doom Blade or just want to keep your key creature you can stick them with a 12/12 if it’s the above version. Likewise, the above creature is worse than a 12/12 for 4GG, but that comparison is pretty obvious.

Why would we want a drawback mechanic?

Because neither the 6/6 fighter nor the 12/12 vanilla are real cards, at least not at six mana. Creatures with tribute let us get things for less than they would normally cost. The closest comparison is Browbeat.

Red is generally not going to get five damage for three mana, and they certainly don’t get a draw three. However, the punisher mechanic is a drawback mechanic that lets the card get printed at just three mana.

Wait, wait, wait. The tribute mechanic is a punisher variant? Most of those cards aren’t very good.

That is true, but this is not because the mechanic is inherently weak by any means. I’m not even just talking cards like Vexing Devil and Browbeat that are at a better rate than the other punishers. The damage-based punisher cards are at an intentionally modest rate because direct damage to the face is a really unhealthy thing for WotC to promote in large numbers. It doesn’t take many good Lava Spikes before you are talking about a pretty degenerate format. Modern can handle it because everyone is doing such powerful things anyway, but if you printed a lot of great damage-based punishers, Standard could hit the critical mass.

Tribute is a very different animal. WotC can basically print as many fatties as they want because they quickly are just pushing each other out (while burn spells inherently stack). People having access to a bunch of giant fatties is hardly the end of the world and promotes far better interaction. As a result WotC is likely to push a bunch of the tribute cards to a spot where they show up in Constructed.

What about Wild Nessian Devastator? Could this be one such Constructed-worthy tribute creature?

When giving your opponent a choice between two threats, we must first ask if each threat is one we generally like. Would we play a 6/6 that fights a creature when it enters the battlefield? I think that card would be quite strong. Duplicant was a tier 1 constructed card, and its stats were generally lower than 6/6. The Devastator can even be played onto an empty board.

What about a 12/12 for 4GG?

This one I’m a lot less sure of. Wolfir Silverheart was sort of a 12/12 for 3GG and got played a fair bit, but costing a mana less is a big deal. Wolfir Silverheart’s drawback of needing another creature is in the same ballpark as the Devastator’s, perhaps slightly greater, though it often gets four points of haste damage in.

My first instinct is that Wild Nessian Devastator is somewhere around the impact of Wolfir Silverheart, perhaps very slightly less (since when they don’t have removal you’d rather have an 8/8 and a 6/6 than a 12/12 and a 2/2). Unfortunately, costing a mana more is absolutely enormous for a creature like this.

This is also a very suspect time for expensive vanilla fatties because Hero’s Downfall is everywhere. It’s really easy to leave you with one dead guy and nothing to show for it. People play Claustrophobia, Doom Blade, Ultimate Price, Cyclonic Rift, Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict, Banisher Priest, and more. Plus some people don’t even have creatures worth targeting, sticking you with a 6/6 instead of a 12/12.

If we were in the market for a big dumb donk, it would have to be better than Kalonian Hydra. Kalonian Hydra isn’t just an 8/8 for 3GG; it hits for sixteen more the following turn (the turn where Devastator would finally be able to attack). Additionally, it has trample, which is exactly what you want on a giant dummy, and it even has synergies with countless other +1/+1 counter cards.

Obviously if there is some “tribute matters” reward in Born of the Gods, this could change, but in general Wild Nessian Devastator is a 12/12 with a minor drawback. Kalonian Hydra is better than a 12/12 for 4GG with no drawback.

Of course this doesn’t spell doom for the mechanic whatsoever. Imagine a 1/1 for one that gave you something you really wanted unless your opponent gave it +2/+2. That could be very exciting. A 2/2 for two that gave you something you wanted unless an opponent gave it +2/+2 could be hot. Even a three-drop could get me on board at the right rate.

I guess vanilla four-drops are possible, but we are starting to get into the space where it is unlikely WotC would push a vanilla hard enough to get Spikes on board. It’s not out of the question that we might want some 7/7 vanilla for four, but anything smaller is relatively unlikely to entice us. However, there is nothing that says the creatures all have to be vanilla.

For instance, imagine a 2/2 flier for four that draws two cards when it enters play unless you make it a 6/6 flier. That one might not quite be good enough, but it’s close and would likely depend on its mana symbols for devotion. Maybe a better example would be a 3/3 haste creature for four that makes three 1/1 tokens unless you give it +3/+3. That’s a pretty hot card that seems like it would be strong enough to get there.

A good rule of thumb with tribute cards is to find the weaker of the two modes and look at the creature as being that card with the drawback of your opponent can stick you with the other one whenever it is to their advantage.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some tribute cards good enough for Constructed, but I would be surprised if this is one.

Verdict: Limited Only

This past Standard format has been great, but I’m really ready for Born of the Gods to shake things up. There are few greater joys than brewing with a new set, and I am super interested to see what direction Born of the Gods takes us. Five more Gods? I can’t wait to see what they are all about. It seems likely that they are five allied-color gold Gods, with the third set of the block featuring five enemy-color gold Gods.

With Born of the Gods preview season finally here, I’ll be keeping an eye on the spoilers this week in search of the first breakout card of the set. As previews come in, be sure to chime in in the comments and let me know which ones we should attack first.

See you next week!

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”

Next Level Deckbuilding