2-3-4: The Philosophy Of Fire And The High-Water Mark
- The Philosophy of Fire
- Card Advantage
"These three concepts deal with the basic manipulation of resources in Magic. The reason there are three is because there are three ways for a resource to be available to you in a game.
The Philosophy of Fire deals with resources that you start with and get no more of unless you pay for them in some way with the use of specific cards. The most well understood example is that of your life total but this also includes the cards in your library how many poison counters you can endure without dying and so on. This is really just a way of describing the option to continue playing the game."
To be honest game 1 wasn't even close. There I was the fast aggressive deck...of all fast and aggressive 2/2 creatures. He threw a little fire at them resolved an Aether Flash and that was pretty much that. I didn't have a card in my maindeck that could win the game!
So dismayed and feeling quite a bit up the wrong creek I looked through my fifteen extra cards. I guess if we are going to do this we are going to do this I said to myself as I sided in those not-Obstinate Baloths those not-Dodecapods.
If we're going to win I concluded it's going to be on the backs of these four Sand Golems.
Oh no you didn't!
Ooh michaelj you are so smart!
I take whatever you write about and go build the Best Deck Ever with it as soon as I get home!
I would never win any games at all without these articles!
… And while that might technically be true I am under no illusions that you actually think this way. I see the best of the theory articles as things that you can file away and use when you need them. Like I did against that long ago Aether Flash.
As such please consider 2-3-4 as a companion piece to:
- Lies Your Teacher Told You; Truths Mine Told Me
- Eight Core Principles of "Who's the Beatdown?"
- Stage-Skipping Standard
The Philosophy of Fire was originally proposed by Adrian Sullivan in the summer of 1999 and probably stands to this point as Adrian's most important contribution to the canon of Magic theory. In this case I was just the first to write about it.
There had already been a longstanding relationship between life total and card economy illustrated then by cards like Necropotence or Sylvan Library (or today via cards like Griselbrand). Obviously one-life-for-one-card was too good a deal (Necropotence is restricted or banned in every format as is Yawgmoth's Bargain and even the brand spanking Griselbrand is close) and Sylvan Library's four-life-for-a-card was kind of an add-on. Both of these systems were active and ultimately voluntary relationships between life total and cards.
In contrast Adrian proposed a relationship of two life for one card but coming the other way; a relationship the opponent might not opt into all by his lonesome.
"What if we consider every card worth two life points? We start with seven cards..."
Do we only have to draw three more cards to win?
Maybe it's not always that simple; maybe not all the time but quite a bit of theory and many successful decks came out of Adrian's simple question and groundbreaking model.
Shock then became the official standard for red burn spells. Shock was exactly where the line was drawn (one card one mana two life points); anything better than a Shock was and is playable to the point of an auto-include... and this has not changed in the intervening thirteen years. Consider Shock itself (played as a minority option in Standard even after thirteen years of power creep) as is everything better than Shock. Galvanic Blast has been killing Delver of Secrets all year (even in decks that rarely achieve Metalcraft) and Pillar of Flame has been doing the same damage to Strangleroot Geist for all its young existence.
Principles of The Philosophy of Fire are alive and well even in places we might not suspect. Didn't Brian Kibler take out Jon Finkel with a flurry of improbable Galvanic Blasts (again in a deck that wasn't "supposed" to be able to hit for four)? Especially early on Mono Red decks were performing in SCG Standard Opens.
Building with The Philosophy of Fire
It is rare that you will see competitive decks that are really just mono-burn spells. Even highly burn-oriented decks in 2012 tend to play some number of recurring sources of damage. This is both as a hedge against mulligans (going down a card in a system where you have to lace together ten cards can be catastrophic) and because The Philosophy of Fire allows you to exploit a different kind of card advantage.
When you consider one card two damage your idea of card economy changes dramatically. A card that can produce three damage (e.g. an Incinerate) is worth more than a card. A creature (that can hit for multiple packets of two damage) can be considered the same at least based on your available resources. When you think of Goblin Guide as an engine for you (when it looks so much like an engine for them) you are empowered with an all-different superpower. You don't need to use it all the time but hey? What if he doesn't BLOCK THE WOLF?
Consider the Modern Bump deck:
The Bump deck is basically The Philosophy of Fire in its purest form.
Cards like Lava Spike (or Spark Elemental in some versions) are just bad Bump in the Nights. But in a deck that considers every card an opportunity to deal two damage to the opponent each and every one of them actually performs 50% above the curve at one mana! Normally you need ten spells to deal 20 but when [some of] your cards deal three damage you only need seven. A Bump in the Night itself is a hedge against mana flood in a sense worth three cards.
Superficial examination of "burn" decks often equates them with a low level of play but in reality I think that they are among the hardest decks to pilot at a high level. Consider just the question of what you are going to do on the first turn. Lava Spike or Goblin Guide?
Lava Spike does more damage and does more damage now.
On balance Goblin Guide gives the opponent the opportunity to draw an extra card; in the case that he does (and there are all kinds of caveats here like you can un-mulligan him or you can be on the draw lots of stuff) that can exactly undo what you are trying to do (remember one card equals two damage).
I think that much or most of the time Goblin Guide is the better first turn play. If you can get in twice you deal four rather than "just" three and if you can get in even more times? I mean there are actually a fair number of decks that have problems with a fast 2/2. In addition Goblin Guide has to get in through The Red Zone while Lava Spike doesn't. That is the window for Lava Spike may stay open after the likelihood of connecting with a Goblin Guide has plummeted.
But in either case it should be pretty apparent that if you can hit for four (or for God's sake six) the number of cards you need—The Philosophy of Fire-wise—goes down relative to dealing three one time.
Mixed Threats and Interaction
The Philosophy of Fire performs in large part because it allows seemingly low power decks to perform non-interactively… It lets "burn" decks work like Storm combo decks. If you pit your burn deck against a creature deck you might be raced by the creature deck (whose creatures—in matchup—each perform like recurring burn spells in a race); on balance the more burn you play the better you tend to perform against control decks (who devote lots of slots to creature control). As you can see from examples like the Bump deck even when you can trade with a creature if it was able to get its money just once (say a solo activation from a Grim Lavamancer) it can act at par with the typical "Shock" burn spell.
The Philosophy of Fire is a mindset and a tool like many others that you can tuck into ye olde quiver for use when it is useful. Of course it can be instructive in terms of an ability to make a different kind of deck... But you can also play a regular game of Magic and say to yourself "Hey my opponent is at such-and-such a life total; maybe I should consider evaluating how I might swap my topdecks for a different way to win" (you know like Brian Kibler did in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Dark Ascension) or you can use it to build in discrete fashion.
A critical mass of fast and efficient spells has allowed decks built on The Philosophy of Fire to play at untold levels of flexibility in large formats like Legacy. Obviously Delver of Secrets is an awesome creature—one of the best one-mana creatures of all time—and that is true in "regular" decks which you already know. Well what if you consider Delver of Secrets a three-damage burn spell? A six-damage one? Nine? FOR ONE MANA? You can constrict your requirements on how many cards you need to win the game with every swing.
Cards like Price of Progress—especially in the context of a format like Legacy with tons and tons of nonbasic lands—can play substantially above the curve. I can't tell you how many times I saw Boozer on the course of that SCG Legacy Open day get in with Goblin Guide twice look out-gunned by big stuff like Knight of the Reliquary and then end it big with a Chain Lightning and a Price of Progress with his back against the wall. That takes a combination of strategy...and the tools to execute on strategy.
We have already stated that playing on a burn plan can actually be more skill testing than many conventional strategies. After all you have to do more with limited resources and often lower-powered cards. The question of launching a Lava Spike or getting in with a Goblin Guide on turn 1 is only the beginning. Now obviously when you are playing—especially primarily—on The Philosophy of Fire there are common dilemmas that can limit your chances of winning.
For example... What do you do if you have to deal with a creature?
God forbid... What if that creature has—gasp—greater than two toughness?
Dealing with a creature at all is going to cost you resources. Remember: the allure of your strategy is that you only need ten cards to win (and you start with seven!). Well if you have to burn some little guy that is going to put a tax on you. If the creature is extra big and you have to use two cards? Disaster and disastrous!
(Or at least a substantial challenge depending on your resources.)
A single hit from a big life gain creature like Baneslayer Angel is like a Mind Twist for you (when it is usually just "bad" for most decks). Not surprisingly for the man who invented The Philosophy of Fire Adrian's first PTQ win was borne on the back of Natural Spring.
This card was played maindeck as a hedge against multiple big burn spells in a format intense with packets of four or even six damage.
A closely related concept to The Philosophy of Fire is that of the "high-water mark" of a format. Newer players may be puzzled at how much more longer-lived players value four-toughness creatures over three-toughness ones. What's the big deal? Is a 3/4 really that much better than a 3/3?
While it might not be a big deal right this second the historical answer is "Yeah pretty much."
In formats where Lightning Bolt is legal it stands to reason people will play it. It isn't just great based on The Philosophy of Fire; it's just an absurdly efficient spell. Burn spells of course aren't popular just because they can go to the face but because of their versatility (they can kill either creatures or opponents and while they are often less good at killing creatures than dedicated black point removal they are never "dead" against creature-poor or creatureless decks).
So just as The Philosophy of Fire can help you select cards towards a strategy the notion of the high-water mark can be a tool you use to pick your creatures.
Some decks have lots of creatures (Mono-Green Aggro) and some creatures have massive impact despite their size (Snapcaster Mage) and so they don't have to take the format's high-water mark particularly into account. If you are strategically playing extra creatures in your sideboard you might want to.
When he executed on the Surprise! transformative sideboard that first/best time Jon Finkel splashed Wildfire Emissary in his U/W Prison deck. He didn't have very many slots for creatures so he needed each creature to be high impact. Wildfire Emissary had a natural resistance to the base removal spell of the day (Swords to Plowshares) whether or not his opponents would keep it in "just" for Mishra's Factory… But players with red cards might be more inclined to keep those "never wasted" spells. Well if they were going to take out a Wildfire Emissary Jon was going to make them use two cards! The bet of course was that they wouldn't be able to and would be raced.
The high-water mark in Standard may have fallen from four to three. Galvanic Blast far outstripped Incinerate in popularity prior to Magic 2013 and Searing Spear is no Incinerate whereas Pillar of Flame is substantially better than Shock.
You might not think you need the high-water mark in your bag of tricks. After all the durability of your creatures only matters when those are the scarce resource which is only important... When you have to do something like figure out you can't win on Plan A and you need your Sand Golems to have a chance.
Hall of Famer Olle Rade made his reputation—and took down a Pro Tour—using primarily 2/3 Spiders for three mana as his offense (Woolly Spider and Giant Trap Door Spider). If these creatures don't seem very good to you... They're not. But Rade realized that the high-water mark of the format was based on Pyroclasm and Stormbind so the ability to weather two damage gave a creature greater value in context than the casual observer might think.
When I first saw Thragtusk I didn't immediately appreciate its durability. As a longtime player I balked at Thragtusk's three toughness. Of course I can read and I could read Thragtusk's reverse-187 ability... But like I said earlier it was not that long ago that we were levying Lightning Bolts at each other in Standard.
Yes yes I realize that between its life gain and extra body Thragtusk is a nightmare for red if it hits. Yet it turns out that Thragtusk might be even more durable than its Vapor Snag-resistant frame might first appear in Standard. Unlike The Philosophy of Fire which uses a base-two model (ten proposed cards against twenty starting life) the high-water mark fluctuates from format to format based on what people play. It is the reason why Birds of Paradise sometimes consistently live through turn 1 or why a vanilla 3/3 for three can break a format. So unless people start spontaneously giving Incinerate more love than they have been Thragtusk's toughness is just dandy.