This Isn’t Solar Flare, Analyzing Decks, And A Word On Tiago

AJ Sacher made 11th place last weekend in Indy with a deck people have been calling “Solar Flare.” Where does this name come from, and why is it wrong to call the deck by this moniker?

In the Standard portion of StarCityGames.com Open: Indianapolis this past weekend, I went 8-1 in the first nine rounds of Swiss and was unable to draw, having been paired down with bad tiebreakers. I lost a mirror match to end up in 11th place. I was playing a deck that has been referred to as “Solar Flare.”

(For the record, I will not be giving an updated list. I would rather attempt to give you the tools to do that yourself. I don’t want people that only want an updated list to waste their time looking for one that will never come.)

I do not like the fact that people are calling this deck “Solar Flare,” and not just because it is a stupid name.

The name comes from one of its creators, Japanese coverage master and semi-pro, Naoki Shimizu. It is a Dragon Ball Z reference, derived because of Krillin’s looking like the recently printed addition to what was then called “Yama-Control,” Angel of Despair. (“Their common ground? Hairlessness.”)

There were many versions with varying results, but its big stage breakthrough was 2006 US Nationals in the hands of heterosexual life-partners Paul Cheon and Luis Scott-Vargas getting 1st and 3rd respectively.

While there are some elements that make it feel similar to today’s U/B/W high-end midrange control decks, I assure you that it is a mistake to think of them as the same. You see, simply having some fatties and reanimation for nut-draw value along with a similar control suite of some two-mana discard spells, some spot removal, and some mass removal is not enough to say that these decks play out the same way. In fact, they do not at all.

The first thing to look at is the mana. The mana in these Ravnica-era three-color control decks was unbelievable. You had Karoo lands and Signets along with some of the best duals of all time and a series of colored utility lands.

Not only does this make it easier to cast absurdly color-heavy cards with more consistency than any other mana base in the history of Standard—besides maybe Vivids, Reflecting Pools, and filters—it also gives you an incredible amount of raw power. The fact that so many of your lands practically cantrip, and you can mitigate any tempo-loss from this (or the fact that your spells are expensive) with Signets gave the deck an ability to launch itself into an absurdly over-powered midgame with relative ease.

Besides the mana being the backbone of the strategy, the core is also unmatched today: The card advantage engine.

Forbidden Alchemy is a completely unique card, and while comparisons to Mystical Teachings are a bit of a reach, it’s not as ridiculous as trying to have it fill the role of Compulsive Research in a deck like this. That is like asking a giraffe to learn a foreign language; it’s downright absurd on multiple levels.

For starters, where are you going to find a giraffe?
Erm, I mean

For starters, the cards are being milled away rather than being discarded from your hand. This means that, in order to go the reanimate route, you have to hit a reanimation target in four cards to get it into your yard. With Compulsive Research, you got every card you had drawn to that point, plus three cards, to find something worth Zombifying. If you want to do the turn 4 nut-draw, you have to hit the Unburial Rites too and something to Sun Titan back all in just those four cards!

Add that to the huge explosion of card advantage that Compulsive Research offers you versus the incremental card selection that you get from Forbidden Alchemy. Late-game, a Compulsive Research gave you a sudden rush of fresh cards whereas Alchemy takes time and mana to accumulate any actual advantage for you to press. There is a difference between Card Selection (Impulse) and Card Filtering (See Beyond), and while those two terms are often used interchangeably, they mean very different things in practice. If you have a dead land in your hand late—a common issue—Compulsive Research is an Ancestral Recall. No matter how many dead lands you have in your hand, Forbidden Alchemy will still only be a bonus-value Impulse (with flashback). While this could actually be considered better, depending on the circumstances, there is no doubt that they are different and play out differently as a result.

Side note: There is an increasing problem in Magic where people insist on comparing things to each other. Gerry Thompson, and obviously subsequently Drew Levin, are particularly guilty of this, but I’ve heard a whole lot of people thinking in those terms. No matter what Patrick Chapin would have you believe, Forbidden Alchemy is not Mystical Teachings, and as I am demonstrating here, nor is it a Compulsive Research. Not everything needs to be “the next that” or “like that, but with these differences.” As I’ll discuss a little more in a bit, drawing from past experience and knowledge is extremely helpful, but at a certain point it becomes downright damaging because you are jumping through hoops to draw comparisons which will skew your perception of that card/deck/idea/theory/strategy, etc.

Sometimes, it is OK for two things that are different to just be different. End aside.

While the synergy with Think Twice could theoretically be compared to the synergies with bouncelands back in the day when discussing Forbidden Alchemy today versus Compulsive Research in the past, you have to recognize that Think Twices take slots and mana while the Orzhov Basilicas of the world were free in regards to both of those resources.

Moving on to a simple parallel denial, anyone who thinks that Mana Leak and Remand are comparable didn’t play during Remand’s quiet dominance over all of Standard. There is a reason that, despite both being legal, Remand was in nearly every deck and dominated the entire metagame while Mana Leak was rarely seen.

Court Hussar is a very different card from Think Twice, and the historical context makes them hard to contrast directly with any realistically meaningful implications, so I won’t bother. The same goes for the more versatile Mortify versus the cheaper removal of today, although that is more of a deckbuilding principle comparison rather than a card vs. card parallel being drawn when there really isn’t one.

While their reanimation didn’t flashback, they had the one-card win in Persecute where we have the value-machine of Liliana of the Veil. Again, just not the same at all.

The faster and more robust/powerful/profitable mana along with the fact that you could filter any dead fat in your hand away allowed the old version to play up to ten haymakers (often floating around 7-8). Without signets, bouncelands, and Compulsive Research, new versions have been held to a maximum of around six with 3-4 being the standard. This is a drastic difference in the deck conceptualization. People have subconsciously (or through trial-and-error from testing) figured out that you can’t play as many as they did back then. What am I complaining about, then, if they already know what is “right?”

Because they don’t know why. (And because those same people are still comfortable treating the deck as though it were Solar Flare even though some of their actions and decisions clearly show that they recognize that they are not the same deck.)

So do I think that today’s deck that has been referred to as “Solar Flare” is worse than its supposed ancestors? Well, yes, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Do I think today’s deck that is being referred to as “Solar Flare” is a bad deck? That’s the question I want you to ask so I can give my Oscar Wilde-esque, coy, and witty response:

Do I think “Solar Flare” is a bad deck? No. I do, however, think that “Solar Flare” is a bad Solar Flare deck.

And before you ask, it’s a really, REALLY bad Teachings deck. Those things had nearly as powerful mana bases with storage lands, Prismatic Lens, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, and Coalition Relic. The deck’s namesake found what you needed it to and guaranteed that you could continue the chain by finding another, neither of which is the case for Forbidden Alchemy. And comparing Careful Consideration to Think Twice is almost as insulting as Compulsive Research.

(For reference, let’s check in with our good friend Luis Scott-Vargas again, 13 months later.)

While I think it is often extremely useful to think of decks in terms of comparable examples from Magic’s past, I also recognize when doing so can be damaging to your perception of “the now,” if you will. I believe this to be an example of the latter scenario. Not only do people often fail to take the proper steps to account for historical context versus current metagame trends and card interactions, they often misinterpret the data that they worked so hard to obtain. For example, they’ll think that a U/B/W Control deck with a relatively minor reanimation theme is automatically comparable with a similar strategy that had minor success in the past. That’s like saying two cakes are the same because they have the same frosting, even though one may have been made with a lot of salt and garlic while the other was made with sugar and cocoa.

Let me break down all of what I just explained about the decks’ comparisons in a slightly shorter way for emphasis:

Solar Flare, the REAL Solar Flare, had a mana base unparalleled in Magic history along with one of the greatest tempo cards of all time in a metagame that allowed it to flourish and an unbelievably robust mid to early-late game. Persecute was a one-card win against many control strategies, and the many haymakers it had all had significant impacts on the game even if destroyed. It produced more card advantage than anything else in the modern era and had an excellent pivot point for taking the initiative in a game.

Teachings had ultimate inevitability with a near flawless win-rate once reaching the late game. It also had an extremely fast and consistent mana base. It had the ability to not only filter through cards extremely quickly, but also tutor up silver bullets for nearly any situation it faced. Shadowmage Infiltrator backed with removal and countermagic let the deck play an Ophidian-based strategy that was difficult to answer.

Neo-Flare, which is what I will be calling this new deck*, does not have any of these attributes.

*It avoids calling it “Solar Flare,” which I’ve stated I believe is a misnomer, while still referencing it so that the commoners that will surely continue to call it that can understand what deck I’m talking about, which is what really matters.

So what DOES Neo-Flare have? That is what we should be looking into, and if you buy into believing that it is merely another iteration of those historic builds, you would have likely skimped on answering this, instead borrowing traits from those decks that may or may not be entirely accurate when applied to this one.

Those paragraph-long definitions of the older decks read almost like infomercials; I just listed a bunch of the positive attributes of the decks. I can do that because they were the best decks for their respective formats in their respective times. Also, because they are dead decks in dead formats in times that have passed, we don’t need to figure out how to build them properly or how to defeat them. However, as you’ll see shortly, we DO want to be thinking about how to build Neo-Flare properly and figure out how to attack it. Because of this, our description is going to be a little more in-depth and deal with both the positives and negatives. Here we go:

Neo-Flare has an extremely robust late-mid to mid-late game. The cheap removal spells and ability to buy them back (Snapcaster Mage and Sun Titan) gives you good ways to interact with creature-based strategies at every point in the game. It has a slow card-drawing engine with a few unique traits: it’s instant-speed; it is only card selection early and only adds more later on; and it isn’t as fluid or consistent as traditional card-drawing engines. Liliana is a value-machine that is hard to answer profitably, but requires a heavy investment. The mana in the deck does nothing special and is not particularly powerful or consistent.

Determining the ramifications while examining these observations more closely is what comes next. I’ll give an example of what this means. I’m not sure if an outline formatting is the most effective way to share this information, and it most certainly won’t be a “proper” outline, but this is the easiest way to display my thought processes in text-form at this time, so I’m just going to go with it and I hope you will, too.

What you want to do after listing all of the characteristics of the deck that you can think of, you want to take each individually and break them down into the most basic terms possible. Once you can dissect the deck into its most base of elements, then you can analyze how the puzzle pieces come together. The only way you can effectively alter or counter a strategy is to understand it inside and out. I’ll take the first characteristic I happened to list in my extremely short and simplified list above and break it down proper:

1. Extremely Robust Late-Mid to Mid-Late Game

A) Examination

What, specifically, does this entail and how is it accomplished?

– This is due to the deck’s ability to produce some insane sequences to gain nearly insurmountable advantages in the span of only a turn or two once that stage in the game is reached.

  • Incredibly powerful and profitable plays such as “Sun Titan, get back Phantasmal Image on Sun Titan, getting back Liliana of the Veil and Cruel Edicting you” are standard practice with this deck at that point of the game.
  • This ability is in thanks to the heavy card selection (and self-milling) done in the early and mid-game and having powerful interactions like those ones in the deck.

B) Deckbuilding Ramifications

How do we utilize this ability and capitalize on its effectiveness? -or- How do we minimize and overcome this aspect? (Depending on whether the trait was positive or negative.)

– It’s often not easy to survive to that point while also being able to set up everything you need in order to start laying hay-makers effectively.

  • You need not only properly versatile removal for the variety of threats you could potentially face, but they also need to be relatively cheap as to not hinder your development into the mid-late game. This deck does have very strong and cheap removal, and with Mana Leaks and Oblivion Rings, the versatility is quite high as well.

– By having the proper set-up cards as well as sequences in our deck.

  • Playing the right set-up suite. Do my cards all work towards this goal?
  • Playing the proper haymakers. If you just want to make a Grave Titan or a Wurmcoil Engine, you’re more than welcome to, but if you’re trying to capatilize on the ability that your deck inherently has to showcase an explosive sequence at that stage in the game, you’re probably better off using cards that further that goal (Sun Titan and to a lesser extent, Rune-Scarred Demon ALONG WITH worthwhile things to get back and tutor for respectively)

C) Metagame Ramifications

Conversely, how should one attack this deck to minimize this trait? -or- How should one attack this deck to minimize this trait (depending on whether the trait was positive or negative)?

– Minimizing the impact of the midgame sequences

  • By not putting too much emphasis on a key, solitary creature or the board in general, you can avoid being blown out by multiple 6/6s and a Liliana/Oblivion Ring coming out of nowhere.
  • Have direct equalizers or trumps to their lines of play, such as Wraths or your own or just as insane sequences. Discover a new, “bigger” trump.

– Preempt those sequences

  • Targeted discard backed with enough pressure to close the window where they could draw out of it. This is less effective in Unburial Rites based sequences.
  • Countermagic with enough card drawing to have enough for their threats while making the necessary land drops.
  • Specified hate for these largely graveyard-centric sequences could be an effective sideboard strategy.

– Dictate the pace of the game to limit their options

  • By maintaining early game aggression, you can force them to deal with the impending threats rather than use their resources to set up their back-breaking haymakers.
  • If they don’t have the right mix of removal or stumble on mana, your deck should be built in a way that capitalizes on this and punishes them before they draw out of it and start chaining into an ultimately unbeatable position.

As you can see, a lot of this is relatively basic stuff (well, basic high-level stuff), and much of it applies outside of this deck specifically. That’s kind of the point. It is also due to the fact that the original principle I used as my example was fairly basic to begin with. As the principles get more deck-specific and card-specific, so will the subsequent examinations and ramifications. Also, I just gave basic guiding principles. If you are to sit down and build X deck, whether it’s Neo-Flare or something you’re trying to get to beat Neo-Flare, then you’ll already have your framework to then plug-in to the outline-style description and be able to tailor the considerations for your needs specifically.

A completed outline like that for a deck could be an article in and of itself, so I won’t break down the entire deck like that here as I am spending words explaining the process to you, the reader. Not to mention that I spent half of the article discussing the dangers of blindly assuming that decks are the same because they share some skin-deep qualities. And I have one more topic I want to touch on.

Before I sign off, I wanted to say a few words about our good friend, Snapcaster Mage. Besides the fact that he lives up to the hype and is absolutely insane, I wanted to discuss a rather subtle effect he has on deckbuilding that I feel is largely overlooked. An ability that he has that improves decks in a way that I have yet to see discussed.

Snapcaster Mage saves slots.

When you build a deck, you determine how many of a certain effect the deck would require to function properly. An easy example of this is in most Legacy decks such as BUG and Stoneforge U/W, where the standard is that you need around four removal spells minimum in order to do everything that you want to do.

Now, with these decks, it is fairly common to have to use a removal spell or two to survive the early game, and then power through your deck using Brainstorm and so forth to find another removal spell for a key creature. Then if they topdeck a Tarmogoyf or what have you, you’re actually in a bit of trouble.

But the only way to avoid this in the past has been to just play more removal spells. This is problematic on two fronts: Firstly, it takes up slots in your deck. You only have 60 cards to work with and only so many utility slots with any flexibility, so to use more of those slots on removal spells means you have to actively cut other cards with different effects. This could impact other matchups or alternate game plans. Secondly, it means adding more situational cards to your deck. If you play more removal spells, it means that you have more dead draws against combo and control.

Snapcaster Mage solves this. It gives you access to “eight” removal spells while only taking up those four original slots, as the Snapcasters don’t take up utility cards’ room (as it is one itself as well) and don’t clog up hands in certain matchups, as he always has value as a Brainstorm or what have you.

In the same vein of theory, it also lets your miser’s utility cards have added value.

Take another look at my Neo-Flare list at the very top of the page. Notice the one Dissipate? A hard counter is something that is good as the game goes longer (and in matchups where the game is likely to go longer), which then makes it more likely that you’ll find a card of which you only have one copy. However, with Snapcaster Mage, it acts as if I have two hard counters for the price of only the one slot. If you actually run two hard counters in your maindeck, you risk drawing them more often in the early game when it is less effective, but the fact that once you find it late, you have the potential to get its effect twice is quite helpful.

I think a lot of Snapcaster Mage’s power lies not in its inherent card advantage, its mana advantage, or its flexibility, but rather its ability to save slots.

No longer do you have to worry about such things as “Oh, I only have two Wraths, so I have to save them for exactly his two Grave Titans” or similar. You can use it freely on an immediately threatening board because its being in your graveyard means you have another copy available to you for his Grave Titan because of Snapcaster.

It’s important to look at complex implications cards like this have on deckbuilding and technical play rather than just exclaiming how it is insane and that it’s pure value (both of which are true statements, to be fair).

Next week is an AJTV that I’m really looking forward to shooting. It’s closer to the first two episodes in style but is a little different in subject matter. You’ll see what I mean. Until then, thanks for reading. See you in Nashville this weekend.

AJ Sacher