Young Pyromancer: The Cycle Is Complete

Drew Levin shares the process he went through to build the Young Pyromancer deck that he played to seventeenth place at SCG Legacy Open: New Jersey. Check it out!

In the beginning, there was Dark Confidant.

Chris Pikula made the finals of the first American Legacy Grand Prix with a B/W deck called Deadguy Ale featuring Dark Confidant as an attrition engine. It has been a Legacy mainstay since its printing in 2005.

Legacy changed again when Tarmogoyf came to town.

First billed by many as a bulk rare that would not prove superior to Werebear in U/G/x Threshold decks, Tarmogoyf has become one of the most dominant creatures in the history of the game.

Although Legacy did not change when Stoneforge Mystic was first printed, the arrival of Batterskull provided Tundra-wielding control decks with a way to take control of the board in an earlier and more reliable fashion than Wrath of God and Decree of Justice could provide.

Snapcaster Mage is a recent addition to the format, but it provided blue removal-focused decks with a way to play eight of its best cards.

Prior to Snapcaster Mage, a legitimate way to overpower control decks was to tax their capacity to answer large threats. A three-color deck featuring Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, and Terravore enjoyed a distinct advantage over a blue control deck featuring Firespout, Counterbalance, and only four Swords to Plowshares. The printing of Snapcaster Mage destroyed the viability of that tactic.

People have been waiting for red decks to get a two-drop worth listing next to the perennial format powerhouses of Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, and Stoneforge Mystic. Young Pyromancer is the end of that wait.

Before you start skipping ahead and looking for decklists, here’s the deck I played to 17th place at the SCG Legacy Open in New Jersey:

Gerry Thompson and I built this in about ten minutes the evening before the tournament. My first game with the deck was round 1 game 1 of the Legacy Open. The concepts of using blue, black, and red and sticking to a tempo shell versus a controlling shell came from one of Marijn Lybaert Facebook posts. I believe that with more work this deck will be a top-tier Legacy deck.

I want to first talk about how to maximize Young Pyromancer’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses. After that, I’ll go over the specific (and occasionally peculiar) card choices in the deck.

The appeal of Young Pyromancer is its ability to pay you off for playing inexpensive spells. Since this is Legacy, there is a lot of appeal in playing inexpensive spells, so we aren’t going too far afield. So far, all we know is that we want cantrips. We’re going to be a blue and red deck.

Our Elemental tokens aren’t sturdy, but they will be numerous. How will they line up against Legacy’s various threat "segments?"

Against decent utility creatures like Deathrite Shaman, Stoneforge Mystic, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Shardless Agent, the Elementals aren’t going to break through. This is a real issue since we can’t afford to Lightning Bolt or Fire/Forked Bolt every single creature like this. We will have to solve for this problem later.

We really like our Elemental tokens against more fragile utility creatures like Dark Confidant, Mother of Runes, Baleful Strix, and Snapcaster Mage since decks include those cards expecting to get more value out of their bodies than trading for a 1/1 Elemental token. This lets us be aggressive against these types of decks since they’ll have trouble getting any value from those cards.

We will have real issues with cards like Nimble Mongoose, Tarmogoyf, Scavenging Ooze, and Batterskull—the roadblocks of the format. Against these decks, we will need real removal spells while also retaining the capacity to swarm around them. Our deck must therefore be capable of being aggressive enough to capitalize on empty boards yet consistent enough to stall the ground until we can swarm around a monolithic threat. 

Planeswalkers are likely to be quite poor against us, as Jace’s -1 and Liliana’s -2 are at their worst against a renewable horde of 1/1 tokens. In a metagame where the two best blue decks lean on Jace to close out blue mirrors, Young Pyromancer will provide a way to stay ahead on board.

What are Young Pyromancer’s weaknesses? Well, for one, it dies to everything. As a 2/1 ground-pounding nonartifact creature, it will die to every targeted removal spell and every currently played sweeper in the format. Golgari Charm answers it and its entire token entourage and happens to see play in Shardless BUG.

Well this is annoying . . .

Young Pyromancer wants you to play a lot of spells, so you can’t count on too many other creatures to draw removal away from it. You’ll want ways to counter their removal spells and creatures that are threats unto themselves.

Gerry and I recognized all of those strengths and weaknesses in coming up with the above list. Let’s go through various card choices and break down how they contribute to the deck’s overall strategy, starting with the mana base.

4 Scalding Tarn, 4 Misty Rainforest: These are mistakes driven only by card availability. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to play a tempo shell (Stifle, Daze, and Wasteland), and the two fetchlands that tip off that style of play are Scalding Tarn and Misty Rainforest. People are going to play around Stifle more if they see those cards. The correct fetchlands here are four Bloodstained Mire and four Flooded Strand, as people are likely to put you on Jund or Goblins with the former and a slow control deck with the latter. You don’t want Polluted Delta since it will make people cautious, not wanting to lose to any of a number of lightning-fast turn 2 blue-and-black combo decks.

3 Volcanic Island, 3 Underground Sea: The same mana base as RUG Delver. No basics, as basics are just terrible. Six dual lands, three of each nonblue color, and zero nonblue duals in the deck. Since we’re going to play a lot of cantrips, we can’t afford to have a land that stops us from chaining Ponders and Brainstorms and whatnot.

3 Wasteland: People are likely to look at the deck and think "only seventeen lands?" But really, this deck cuts a zero-mana Stone Rain from the traditional RUG Delver mana base, not a land. Every RUG Delver deck fundamentally plays fourteen lands.

Wasteland may help you cast spells, but that’s not why you put it in the deck. You put it in the deck so that you can randomly mana screw someone or set them back a turn. The issue with this deck is that your mana is often better left in play, as you want to cast multiple spells on turns 3 and 4 so that you can create an army of Elementals.

4 Delver of Secrets: Was there ever a better card to play with cantrips than Delver of Secrets? Young Pyromancer may prove to be close, but once you know you’re playing more than 25 spells, you need to have a great reason not to play Delver. Our deck actually maximizes Delver more than most, as we can stall the ground against a lot of decks and race with Delver in the air.

4 Young Pyromancer: The core of the deck. It stabilizes the board, it protects you, it kills them, it attacks for two, and it creates some awesome interactions. I would play ten if I could.

4 Dark Confidant: This is where many talented players failed to understand the deck. Several top-flight Magicians asked me about this slot over the course of the day, inquiring as to whether I would prefer Tiago to Bob. After all, Snapcaster is great with spells!

The problem is that you need to play only creatures that they want to kill. If and when they run out of removal spells, you want your last creature to murder them no questions asked. If they answer your Delver, Delver, and Pyromancer, you want your fourth creature to absolutely get them. Snapcaster Mage is not that fourth creature. Dark Confidant is.

Sam Black actually understood it better than I did. I talked to him about his deck—which looked significantly different, but we both had Confidant and Pyromancer—and he said, "Yeah, I play Dark Confidant first so that I can stick Young Pyromancer."

I cocked my head to the side. "You mean you . . . "

"Yeah, Bob is just the bait. I really want to have a Young Pyromancer."

"You must be mistaken."

"No, dude. Young Pyromancer is just the best two-drop in Legacy."

I laughed at him in the moment, but by the end of the day, I was playing the exact same way.

3 Grim Lavamancer: A Marijn Lybaert inspiration, these were MVPs all day long. They either immediately died, killed three creatures and died to a topdecked removal spell, or killed everything and then my opponent. Here’s why Grim Lavamancer deserves a job:

  • Kills Deathrite Shaman and isn’t picky about its materials.
  • Kills every nuisance creature in Shardless BUG: the stupid robot owl, the stupid robot rogue, the aforementioned stupid Elf Shaman, and so on. Kills almost every creature in smaller decks like mono-white. As good as ever against tribal decks such as Elves, Goblins, and Merfolk.
  • Shrinks Tarmogoyf down to a more manageable size.
  • Kills planeswalkers on the off chance that matters.
  • Fizzles a Deathrite Shaman activation from a careless player (usually while killing said Shaman).
  • Lets you play a longer game by giving you access to more resources with which to attrition opposing resources.
  • Dies on sight, letting your other creatures win the game for you when it can’t.
  • Kills players.

Fifteen creatures is likely the upper limit on how many you want, as going too far below 28 spells is going to make your Delvers and Pyromancers worse. Which 28 spells should this deck be playing though? Let’s talk about how to build a tempo deck.

4 Brainstorm: I’m no Lejay. Play four. If you have the urge to cast one early, consider that you are likely to get paid off better on a later turn. This deck has a lot of cards you will want to shuffle away in the late game. Try not to cast these early.

4 Ponder: On the other hand, definitely cast these early. These are great at helping you sculpt a game plan and dig to a card that you need. Shuffle aggressively for what you’re looking for unless you’re setting up a Delver or Confidant.

4 Gitaxian Probe: A free spell to trigger Young Pyromancer on turn 2, a card that gives you a lot of valuable information at a very low cost, and another way to thin your deck. You can cut these, but your deck will slow down as a direct result.

4 Daze: Another free spell that triggers Young Pyromancer on turn 2, except this one also protects it. Since you’ll be going through a lot of cards with cantrips, you will likely find several more lands than you need over the course of the game. Daze’s "drawback" can be an upside in these situations, as you can combine Daze with Brainstorm to put back dual lands and fetch them out, effectively unflooding yourself.

4 Lightning Bolt: You’re playing red and often racing people. This is going to be a great card almost all of the time.

3 Stifle: You don’t want to hold up Stifle all of the time in this deck. You don’t have a one-mana threat besides Delver of Secrets—as RUG has with Nimble Mongoose—to make Stifle a truly great card. You’ll still kill a few fetchlands with it, you’ll protect your mana base with Wasteland a fair amount, and you’ll use it to counter everything from cascade to miracle to Ancestral Vision’s "cast this."

Those uses don’t make it good; they just make it a worthwhile part of a larger strategy. You want to have cards that give you options. Stifle interacts with a lot of parts of the format that you want to interact with, and your other cards don’t. Since it’s one of the worse cards in the deck, you don’t want all four, as drawing two is rarely good.

3 Force of Will: Given how threat-heavy blue decks are nowadays, it’s impossible to justify playing four Force of Wills. You want to cast all of your blue cards, making double-Force hands quite weak. After sideboarding, you have better cards available against combo decks than Force of Will. It’s a playable card in Legacy right now, but it’s not something you hope to draw in every single matchup.

2 Dismember: The incredibly important "how to kill a Tarmogoyf" slot. This card can’t cost two mana to play, as the deck has an abundance of two-mana cards as is. It has to be able to kill Deathrite Shaman. Let’s look at our list so far:

Ghastly Demise
Go for the Throat
Snuff Out

Well, that about settles it.

So what does our deck do? It deploys threats that demand timely answers, it has the ability to play "small ball" with a tempo package of Stifle, Daze, Force of Will, Wasteland, and Delver of Secrets, it has the ability to go toe-to-toe with aggressive decks with a renewable board presence generated by Young Pyromancer and 28 spells as well as a removal suite featuring Lightning Bolt, Dismember, and Grim Lavamancer, and it has the ability to play long games against bigger blue decks due to a very low land count, Dark Confidant, some mana denial elements, and Grim Lavamancer providing inevitability advantage over Deathrite Shaman.

Moving on to the sideboard, what do we want our sideboard to help us do?

Against combo, we’d like to cut all of our removal for a variety of interactive cards. They can’t all be stack interaction, and they can’t all be discard because decks like Omni-Tell exploit single-minded disruption plans by playing Defense Grid and Leyline of Sanctity as powerful countermeasures. What would we like to cut?

Worst: Dismember, Grim Lavamancer, Lightning Bolt

Ideal number of sideboard slots: 9 split between discard and countermagic

Against true aggressive decks, we want to be able to kill even more of their small creatures. Pretty straightforward, but some of our tempo cards are weak here. We’d like to cut some number of Probes, but we can’t cut all of them since cantrips are a real part of your mana base.

Worst: Force of Will, Daze, Gitaxian Probe

Ideal number of sideboard slots: 7-9

Against RUG Delver, we want answers to Tarmogoyf and Nimble Mongoose. We have a ton of ways to kill an Insectile Aberration, but our game plan is soft to a Tarmogoyf and we’re going to get hurt by Rough // Tumble. As a result, we don’t want cards that are going to be dead in ten-turn games, and we do want high-impact cards that kill Tarmogoyf and Nimble Mongoose.

Worst: Force of Will, Stifle, Daze

Ideal number of sideboard slots: 9

Against the threat-dense blue Deathrite Shaman midrange decks—Shardless BUG and Esper Deathblade—we want to go long with them and stay ahead on board. We’ll have to play around Golgari Charm out of Shardless BUG, but aside from that we’ll be okay. Their cards are pretty bad, and our cards are awesome. We’ll have issues with Batterskull and Umezawa’s Jitte out of Esper Deathblade and falling behind on board to Shardless BUG, but we have a lot of paths to victory.

Worst: Force of Will, Daze

Ideal number of sideboard slots: 7

Let’s look at the sideboard that I played in New Jersey:

4 Cabal Therapy
2 Flusterstorm
2 Pyroblast
2 Perish
2 Smash to Smithereens
1 Grim Lavamancer
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Bonfire of the Damned

Now let’s break this down into what I wanted these cards for.

Cabal Therapy: Awesome with Young Pyromancer, but not the right maindeck fit for a tempo deck that wants to strand cards in an opponent’s hand. Two years ago when I was playing Team America (a BUG tempo deck with Stifle and Hymn to Tourach), Gerry asked me if I would entertain the notion of cutting Stifle from the deck. I scoffed at his suggestion, not yet capable of understanding the deck design paradox of attacking their capacity to cast their spells while also attacking the stranded cards in their hand. Two years later, putting Cabal Therapy in the sideboard of a tempo deck makes all the sense in the world to me. You want to cast either Cabal Therapy or Stifle in game 1s. If you’re casting both, you need to focus your game plan.

This is strictly for combo decks. The problem with having Cabal Therapy against Stoneforge Mystic decks nowadays is that they’re so mana efficient. You would rather force them to spend their mana on their equipment and then answer it. If you make them discard their equipment, they will still be able to use their mana elsewhere and get ahead of you on board. Once you put yourself in a reactive position against Esper Deathblade, a lot of your cards lose a lot of their value. Your threats don’t get played, you’re casting spells without Young Pyromancer in play, and you don’t have Grim Lavamancer around to shoot down freshly deployed threats. Although Cabal Therapy looks appealing against Stoneforge Mystic, it’s a trap. It’s still a powerful card, but only in specific situations.

Applications: Combo only.

Flusterstorm: This is the more versatile card that you may want Cabal Therapy to be. Flusterstorm is great against combo decks while still being strong against tempo decks that rely on resolving cantrips to hit their land drops and shuffle away weaker cards. It is not great against creature-dense blue midrange decks.

Applications: Decks with Ponder.

Perish: A high-impact card that kills every relevant creature in Shardless BUG and both creatures that we care about in RUG Delver. There are several decks in the format against which it is a game ender.

Applications: Tarmogoyfs and bigger, decks with Dryad Arbor.

Pyroblast: A similar card to Flusterstorm. Gerry suggested that it is likely just worse than Flusterstorm, although I like it against RUG Delver as a way to fight their cantrips and their Delvers. You want Pyroblast and not Red Elemental Blast for the corner case where you cast it for no value to get it in the graveyard for Grim Lavamancer.

Applications: Blue cards.

Smash to Smithereens: The best available answer to Batterskull and Umezawa’s Jitte. Since we don’t have green, we can’t play Ancient Grudge. Since we don’t have Snapcaster Mage, Smelt makes no sense. Smash gives us a free three points in a matchup where we’ll always be the aggressor.

Applications: Stoneforge Mystic decks, artifact-heavy decks.

Grim Lavamancer: When three are good . . .

Applications: Are you keeping in all three Grim Lavamancers? Do they have a lot of creatures that you can kill with Grim Lavamancer? How about it?

Jace, the Mind Sculptor: This came up when Gerry and I were talking about how games are likely to play out against attrition-heavy blue decks and combo decks. Against decks like Esper Deathblade, we’re likely to see a lot of our creatures killed. In those situations, a Jace would be a really good card to draw in a late-game topdeck war. Against combo, it’s just a good card where we need another sideboard slot so that we can board out all of our Bolts and Lavamancers.

Applications: Grindy blue decks and combo.

Bonfire of the Damned: This was initially Engineered Plague since I wanted the help against Goblins and Death and Taxes. Against Death and Taxes, almost all of their x/1s are Humans (Mother of Runes, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, etc.).

I woke up at 3 AM the morning of the tournament and realized that all of my creatures are Humans.

Sinking feeling. Back to the drawing board.

Engineered Plague
Ratchet Bomb
Bonfire of the Damned

Applications: The more they resemble Cedric Phillips, the better. [Editor’s Note: R-u-d-e.]

This was roughly the thought process that got me to Bonfire of the Damned. I would not play it again. There are better options.

I would love to tell you how I would build the deck moving forward, but this article is getting pretty long.

In an exciting turn of events, however, I’ll be producing Legacy video content in this space every other week! Next week, I’ll have a video outlining the deck and walking you all through some matches of Magic with it. The week after that, I’ll write about another deck. Two weeks after that, I’ll do the same thing with that deck.

Can’t wait for next Tuesday? Well, neither can I!

Until next week,

Drew Levin

@drewlevin on Twitter