Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged (back) in.
For those of you who don't remember me (which I'm sure includes most everyone), my name is Michael Martin. I am, or at least was, a PTQ-level Magic player in Northern Virginia prior to stepping away from this here game we all love last year. I realized that the desire to play, the fire, was gone, and this realization came to me when I missed out on the StarCityGames.com Open featuring the Invitational in Baltimore due to not realizing it started on a Friday…
… And did not care in the least.
Then, on top of that, I showed up for the Standard Open the following day only to have the announcer state that the tournament would be a ten round slugfest, which elicited a groan and had me wishing I was back at home laying in my king-sized bed with my eighteen month old daughter and fiance. I actually dreaded being at the tournament site for the entire day and was noticeably happy to be knocked out of contention in round 4. I knew it was time to step away.
I just didn't realize my lack of desire to game was so extreme. I literally didn't touch a Magic card for at least six months after that day, nor did I consider it. Unfortunately, that also led me to lose contact with some Magic friends, some of whom I've yet to regain contact with, which is unfortunate. The main reason most anyone plays this game is due to the great friendships we develop and the fun we have at events.
However, this isn't about all that jive. This is about what I've been up to lately, which is to say not much. I've just gotten back into gaming recently, and from what I've been told, Standard is really boring right now to play. I don't agree because all of the cards are so fresh to me, but from what I've heard, it's Sphinx's Revelation's world and we're all just living in it.
So when I came back to gaming, the first thing I played…was Cube. Then, once I got past the requisite reintroduction to Magic by doing the best thing you could be doing, I showed up for FNM hoping someone I knew had a deck I could use.
Luckily for me, my old buddy Chris Wallace was hanging out and was more than happy to assemble anything I wanted to play. I just needed to tell him which deck. While I'd been following some coverage, I had no idea whatsoever. However, since it was Sphinx's Revelation's world, I figured I'd live in it. I ran a version of Bant Control that had Thragtusk, Restoration Angel, Sphinx's Revelation…
… Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A rather boring list, nothing spicy, but I just wanted to game. I started out undefeated, going 3-0, before having mana issues against U/W/R Flash and misplaying against B/R Zombies when I left up Azorius Charm for Thundermaw Hellkite and Falkenrath Aristocrat while sitting at one life (casting Farseek to power up the two Sphinx's Revelations in hand while at all of six mana). I lost to a topdecked Hellrider when I would have had just enough mana to Charm and Revelation for one to stay alive had I have thought about that line of play.
Misplaying and getting punished? Oh, just the usual…
However, this was just enough to whet the ol' appetite for more. I came back for more FNM the following week, but I agreed with the folks saying that Sphinx's Revelation was boring and decided to try something else.
For those who don't remember my previous articles, Ali and I go way back, so I tend to follow his stuff even when I'm not playing. So when this video came out, I was going to watch it anyway. After watching it, I was sold.
I decided to play Burn at the Stake at FNM, asking Chris again for some assistance. I showed up to see him purchasing cards for the deck, and I felt terrible because I hate putting people out. It turned out that Curio Cavern (where we game at) had a foil Bonfire of the Damned that he wanted, so he bought that and a couple of other commons and uncommons for the deck and handed it over. Thanks, Chris!
It felt like I was playing Storm. You spend a couple of turns making dudes, then when the shields are down and the coast is clear, you play Battle Hymn and draw a bunch of cards, play a bunch of dudes, cast Past in Flames, draw more cards, make more dudes, etc., etc…
Then you Burn your opponent at the Stake.
Have you ever looked at your opponent at 30 life (from multiple Thragtusks), have four 1/1 Goblins, and said "Let me see if I can kill you this turn?"
Have you ever done that with a serious face?
And then did it?
I have. And it was as amazing as it sounds.
Imagine a bunch of little Goblins actually coming together, tying a planeswalker to a stake, and then burning it. I did that while comboing off. It made my turn of playing solitaire even more fun than it already was.
The next game, he mulled to four and died while holding a Golgari Charm with no green mana.
Sometimes, you just get there.
After that, it was just a bunch of fun times for me. My opponents were all good sports, allowing me to have my fun, with the exception of the guy who decided to play Ash Zealot. That guy was a jerk (not by any actions he took/didn't take, just by the fact that he played that card). Luckily for me, neither of us realized the interaction until our neighbor looked over and said, "Man, what an interaction, the fact that Ash Zealot deals three damage every time you flash something back."
I went through the full spectrum of emotions. Shock. Contemplation. Frustration. Anger (at the guy next to me for interfering). Acceptance. Frustration again. But it was FNM, and it was how the card was supposed to work. I was more upset that I wasn't able to continue trying to go off because I was at one and had worked hard to stay at a life total that allowed me to continue building my hand and sculpting a game state that would have allowed me to go off. I conceded on the spot upon realizing the interaction (even though I didn't have to, but in reality I was just dead), though I wanted to finish comboing just to see if I would have won that game.
The deck is really that fun. I wasn't upset at the loss or that I could never ever beat Ash Zealot, but I was a little put out that couldn't finish having my fun.
It seems that the deck actually has some game. The problem is that you have a choke point: maintaining a board presence. You have tokens, which should allow you to protect yourself, but you have to keep them on the table for your Rituals to do work. It's a very awkward balance you have to strike between staying alive and actually maintaining enough creatures to go off on the turn you need to.
The core of the deck is tokens, Burn at the Stake, Battle Hymn, and Goblin Electromancer. That last one may cause some grumbling from those who have played the deck and may not agree, but it seems to me that the deck needs tokens, Goblin Electromancer, and Battle Hymn to start going off. Electromancer accounts for an actual ton of mana on the turn you go off. You're most vulnerable when you first start comboing because you're usually at somewhere between four and six tokens and your Battle Hymn isn't going to add infinite mana like it will later in the turn. Since you're getting four mana for the cost of two (if no Electromancer is on the board), you're only netting two mana. This may work with Dark Ritual, but those decks also play more Rituals that just the Dark variety.
Now, in that same scenario, if you have three tokens and an Electromancer (let's assume you blocked or something), you play a Battle Hymn for one mana, netting three. While it looks like you've netted an additional mana over not having it, you have to also realize that you tapped one less land as well. So without Electromancer, those two lands accounted for four red mana. With the Electromancer, those two lands accounted for four red mana and another blue/white/red/black mana (depending on the land you left up), which is incredibly relevant because none of your Rituals produce non-red mana. So drawing into things like Lingering Souls and Auger of Bolas kind of stinks when you're tapped out and comboing out.
Speaking of which, I hated having Auger of Bolas in the deck. I probably won't again.
The long and short of this is that I'd love to play this deck again. If I could today in a StarCityGames.com Standard Open, I would. (Albeit with the obligatory changes. Always with the changes!)
Obligatory Changes and the Staticaster Problem
First, I got extremely lucky and didn't run into an opponent running the uber combo of Peddlecaster Nightzet Statishadester. Well, against me, it's a one-card combo consisting of just Izzet Staticaster. How do you beat that?
Well, you could remove it. After it's already wiped out your board at instant speed. Clearly not the answer I'm looking for.
Pithing Needle? One mana colorless answer that comes down before Izzet Jerkicaster does his/her (not sure which, don't have the card sitting in front of me) worst. I think we've found our winner!
What about Curse of Death's Hold? That's like Staticaster only better because it can't be Pithing Needled. We could feasibly go off before it comes online, as the decks that play it tend to only play one or two, but they're also the decks that can easily buy the time they need to reach that point. That's why we play Talrand, Sky Summoner.
However, since this is a control deck we're talking about, I don't feel comfortable playing a card that needs a full turn to pass before I can win with it. I'm still playing Talrand, but I want more.
Hello, Guttersnipe. (And Cyclonic Rift…and Devil's Play…)
Against Rest in Peace and other graveyard hate, including Ash Zealot (might as well be removing the graveyard), we play Talrand to hopefully pull far enough ahead to attack a few times through the air to win the game. Ditto Guttersnipe. We can bring in Cyclonic Rift, but the damage has already been done at that point.
The Lingering Souls and Token Conundrum
Now, I'd like to address Lingering Souls.
Yes, the card is good.
Yes, you need tokens.
God, I hate that card in this deck.
The white and black are both hard to come by when you're comboing off. In the early turns of the game, you want to be casting Faithless Looting, flashing back Faithless Looting, casting Goblin Electromancer, casting Krenko's Command…none of which requires black or white mana. It just sits in such an awkward spot in this deck and feels like how I view any kind of shellfish dish: too much work for the expected reward.
But we need tokens.
Therein lies the core issue. Krenko's Command is excellent, exactly what we're looking for in the deck. I wish Dragon Fodder was being reprinted in Gatecrash so we'd have enough 1R token-producing spells to make the deck hum. However, we don't have that. So what else do we have in the red pool of cards to help in this regard?
Goblin Rally is a bit too expensive for what we want to be doing; sure, it's castable after you've started going off, but you're only able to start going off once you already have creatures in play. There are times I could see it helping, maybe, but the fact is that even with an Electromancer it still costs four mana, so it's not like it's going to get cast before you've cast a couple of Battle Hymns, severely decreasing its value. No big help there.
Thatcher Revolt is an actual possibility. With at least one Electromancer, Thatcher Revolt is helpful on the turn you go off. Three tokens for two mana followed by a one mana Battle Hymn, gives you at least four mana (on average closer to six mana, as you've likely already gotten some token action), and then you can start chaining other spells, each of which is stronger because of the three tokens you have on the board from the Thatcher Revolt. This is how this card differs from Goblin Rally since it can start pushing your momentum forward on the all-important turn, giving you not only three tokens on the front end; once you start going off and hit the Past in Flames, you also get the back end tokens as well, another important factor of the "final turn."
However, you don't get to keep them at the end of turn, so it's still inferior to Krenko's Command in every way. I wouldn't play more than two or three, but I would like more token producers that I can cast off of the red mana Rituals. Additionally, another added wrinkle is that I like playing some number of Infernal Plunge, but you have to balance getting mana with Plunge and losing too many creatures so your Burn at the Stake isn't lethal anymore. Having more ways to add creatures while comboing will definitely help balance that out.
Other Options and Thoughts
Another card I think merits a look is Wild Guess. While "going off," I've noticed a glut of lands will almost kill your combo on the spot. Having access to another way to filter you hand for two more cards is greatly helpful. I actually like the idea of Wild Guess over Desperate Ravings due to the inclusion of Past in Flames, meaning the one positive I'd give Desperate Ravings over Wild Guess (the flashback) isn't even applicable since you end up flashing Ravings back with red mana anyway while comboing. Sure, you can't reduce the cost with an Electromancer, but having the ability to control what you discard is a great benefit.
You know what else I'm considering? Secrets of the Dead and Burning Vengeance. Both ping off of Past in Flames flashbacks, which you do a ton of with this deck. Burning Vengeance actually gives you a win condition that doesn't require having a ton of tokens in play, so you can play the full set of Infernal Plunges as well. I'd post a speculative list, but it would have no actual game play behind it and would just end up looking like the Burn at the Stake deck with the two enchantments jammed in. It may be worth trying, though, so I'm not dismissing it.
The deck (Burn at the Stake, not Burning Vengeance / Secrets of the Dead) is truly a blast to play and is very intricate with roughly infinite decision trees, but on top of all that, it actually feels like it could be good. The one thing that would hold me back is the prevalence of Izzet Staticaster, but I'm hoping that between the Pithing Needles and all of the dig spells you have within the deck that you can counteract that one card and do what any combo deck should do to a midrange deck: crush it.
With that, here's a revised list I'd consider running at a major event, like a StarCityGames.com Standard Open.
The mana base is garbage and will be unless we get fetchlands back. However, with everything except one land producing red mana, it shouldn't be a huge problem. You'll notice I've cut the Lingering Souls, and I'm trying to see if the Thatcher Revolts can make up for some of that lost ground. I'm very open to going back to Lingering Souls if this experiment doesn't work out, but as long as the Thatcher Revolts are viewed in the same light as the other Ritual cards (i.e., only cast on the turn you're going off), they should perform rather admirably.
I also think the addition of Infernal Plunges is going to help with the lowered number of sustainable token-producing cards. Since you can more easily turn one mana into three red mana, missing out on a couple of tokens early in the final turn hopefully won't be a huge burden. Just keep in mind that if you're planning on casting Battle Hymn and Infernal Plunge in the same turn that you cast the Battle Hymn first for more mana. I know this seems obvious sitting here reading this, but even knowing this, I almost messed it up a couple of times.
Another option could be expanding to white instead of black (in my opinion, it's really one or the other) due to Gather the Townsfolk and Midnight Haunting. (With no black mana for the "actual" flashback cost, Haunting is just better. Plus, we'll get to flash it back with Past in Flames). This gives us six to eight more consistent, sustainable token producers in addition to just Krenko's Command, which, in my opinion, is the one thing that's really keeping the deck from cruising along at Mach speed. The mana base might be a bit shaky at first, but we're getting Sacred Foundry in Gatecrash, which is going to help immensely.
Adding white also does something else; it allows us to have a slightly different sideboard plan. In game 2, people are going to board in stuff to try to stop us. Graveyard hate, Staticasters, Curses, and even Slaughter Games to take out the namesake card all come in post-board against this deck. White gives you the ability to board into a straight up tokens deck with Intangible Virtue, which effectively neuters the ability for Staticaster and Curse of Death's Hold to blow you out. Your opponent can worry about your graveyard and combo win condition while you just bash with vigilance tokens.
This list is rough, but I like the increased consistency with the additional (reliable) token producers almost as much as I dislike the inconsistent mana. Such is life pre-Gatecrash, I suppose.
Well, that's about all I have for this installment. I don't know how often the fine folks at StarCityGames.com will allow me to write articles as I start getting back into competitive gaming, but I assure you that I'll be back as much as they'll have me. I'm already working on my next piece, which contains a ton of incredibly helpful tips when it comes to maximizing your brain's efficiency over the course of a tournament, something I think is incredibly overlooked when people think about optimal play. It's coming along almost like a research paper because I know almost every Magic player is incredibly smart and will want to see sources for some of the scientific mumbo jumbo I'm quoting. I think it's going to be something I'll be very proud of, though.
Until we meet again, my friends!
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