The Philosophy of Fire: Hybrid Strategies and That Dirty Combo Deck Feeling
The first time we talked about the Philosophy of Fire, the goal was to introduce the idea of valuing cards according to a different scale. At the point that the original article was published, I would guess that almost everyone in my audience already understood how to value cards against cards in direct relation (for example the"card advantage" of an Unburden against two in the opponent's grip or the inherent disadvantage of spending an artifact and a Shrapnel Blast on the opponent's Arc-Slogger straight up). The original article differentiated from this kind of counting by saying that we can also measure against the twenty points of the opponent's life total.
Zvi Mowshowitz, arguably the game's premiere strategy writer, ran with some of the ideas I started in the Philosophy of Fire for another site. Zvi correctly pointed out that Wizards R&D considers Shock more or less the baseline, and that means that, arbitrarily or not, we have to consider it the same for the purposes of the Philosophy of Fire. Adrian Sullivan, the first player to really start exploring the mechanics of what makes this theory go, used to say"If every card is a Shock, and I start with seven cards, that's fourteen damage; I only need three cards to kill you."
Now this is of course an oversimplification because you have things like land to take into consideration. Land is both friend and bane to the Philosophy of Fire. If Adrian really drew seven Shocks to start, he couldn't possibly win the game because he couldn't cast any of them... but I think the sentiment of what Adrian is trying to get across should be fairly easy to understand. In essence, we are evaluating our hand (and probably building our deck) according to a different relative scale than the traditional model, even if that scale still uses objective measurements.
During the Extended season of winter and spring 1999, Jamie Wakefield made a rather interesting observation. The dominant decks of the time was of course High Tide, but there were other decks of comparatively brief lifespan that also won very quickly, such as Academy, Broken Jar, Dred Panda Roberts, Free Whaley, and even straight Rec-Sur; all were capable of a fourth turn kill. The thing is, during this extremely fast and high-powered format, even the mono-Red beatdown decks were getting into the act. Look at Mark Gordon's Grand Prix: Kansas City Championship deck:
This deck had several different fourth turn kills, almost all of which involved Ball Lightning and Fireblast. Jamie's observation? The burn decks were playing like combo decks. They had fast kills too, but they had to draw a certain way in order to get them.
Let's go back to Adrian's quotable about starting with seven cards and really only needing ten cards to win. Even if the math doesn't work exactly like that, we know that a properly built Philosophy of Fire deck is going to make up points on certain cards (Volcanic Hammer doing three instead of two), and that even the lands are going to help finish games with Landslide, Fireblast, or Shrapnel Blast. But the essence of what Adrian was talking about is pretty straightforward. He is saying that measuring cards against an opponent's life total directly as the victory criteria is Like Playing A Ten-Card Combination Deck. The difference between assembling a three-card combination kill and assembling twenty points of burn over ten spells is less than you might have thought. In the former, three specific combination pieces are required, while in the latter, you can interchange many of the combination pieces. Think of it as the difference in being able to get Goblin Bombardment, Shield Sphere, and Enduring Renewal and getting Phyrexian Altar, Phyrexian Walker, and Enduring Renewal, except all of the combination pieces are interchangeable at some level.
Now the last time I wrote on this topic, Zvi was quick to point out that maybe my choice in decks was not the best for displaying the principles of the Philosophy. He said that I erred in the sense that I wasn't really racing to twenty in two point increments so much as amassing a critical amount of damage that could easily add up to fifty at the end of any game. This time around, let's look at an almost perfect application of the Philosophy of Fire:
Patrick Sullivan - PTQ Winner, 2003-2004 Winter Extended Season
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Goblin Cadets
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Jackal Pup
4 Lava Dart
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Seal Of Fire
4 Volcanic Hammer
4 Bloodstained Mire
4 Rishadan Port
4 Wooded Foothills
Patrick's deck is absolutely fantastic from the standpoint of redundancy and focus. His deck gets very vanilla draws that are favored a good deal of the time, and also plays a couple of cards that let him make huge jumps in relative card count.
The only thing that I don't get about Patrick's deck is the lack of Firebolt (I would probably have played Firebolt in lieu of Volcanic Hammer or Seal of Fire). Perhaps the fact that Patrick didn't, and his deck still ran so well, is a testament to the modular redundancy of his specific build.
That said, there are two specific areas of focus that jump out, differentiating this deck from a pure Shock deck, and probably contributing to its relative excellence when compared to the same. The first is the Jackal Pup redundancy on the one-drops. Patrick played not only Jackal Pup but the far inferior Goblin Cadets. Now there were combination decks in the post-bannings Extended of last winter, as well as Psychatog, but the format was still mostly creature decks. Goblin Cadets in and of itself is not a great choice, at least if we don't waver from playing our Shocks to the head.
However, Patrick can use his Shocks on the opponent's creatures And Still Play According To The Philosophy Of Fire. Remember that if he takes out a Llanowar Elves that might get in the way of his attacker, he is still trading the Shock for two points of damage. If he uses a Lava Dart, he is actually getting an even better deal. The question is, how much damage is that Shock going to do? If Patrick blows a Shock on a blocker and only gets one hit with the Goblin Cadets, he probably should have saved the Shock. But the fact that a creature can deal damage time and again informs when a deck like this is willing to burn creatures rather than the face.
The other interesting point of this deck is Patrick's use of Blistering Firecat As A Burn Spell.
Remember that the baseline counting principle of the Philosophy of Fire is that if you put together ten cards that do two points of damage, you kill the other guy... our"ten-card combination" quip from Adrian. Patrick's deck is chock full of cards that do exactly two damage, from Jackal Pup to Grim Lavamancer activations.
If you hit the opponent with a Blistering Firecat, though, the poor guy has only thirteen life, meaning that you need only six Shocks and one point of mise to win a game. To this point, Zvi once said"... every point of burn makes every future point of burn more valuable... By playing a critical mass of burn, you hope to make your burn valuable." Blistering Firecat is the extreme example, increasing the power of each other burn spell aimed at your opponent by more than 50%!
Believe it or not, I actually know I repeatedly used the term"Shock" in my analysis of Patrick's Red Deck Wins build when he did not in fact have any Shocks. Clearly I am using it as a general term. Please mentally overlay the word"Bolt" wherever"Shock" makes you feel uncomfortable and refrain from cluttering the Forum with your comments on this specific point.
Seth Burn recently applied the Philosophy of Fire to the mono-artifact format of Mirrodin Block Constructed, assembled three quick wins, and qualified for Worlds on rating. Here is the deck he played:
Seth's deck has a lot of cool things going on, including the interaction of Arc-Slogger and Beacon of Destruction, but it is mostly a Red Deck wants to deal a lot of damage directly to the opponent. A good deal of this damage comes from a principle that Patrick's sideboard touched upon, that tries to solve the fundamental problem of lands.
Furnace Whelp turns Mountains into points of damage. As an evasion creature, it doesn't get blocked very often; like Blistering Firecat, it can kind of pretend that it is a four-mana burn spell. It sure does two like any other good Shock, but not enough for your typical four-mana spell that takes an extra turn to do any damage at all. What makes Furnace Whelp special is the fact that it enables lands in a way not unlike Landslide. Every Mountain is made useful, becomes especially on the last turn of the game, an important part of the team effort of dealing damage.
That being said, the question arises... Why play according to the Philosophy of Fire at all? If you look at two cards, Savannah Lions and Shock, both cost one mana. Both will do two damage... but the likelihood of Savannah Lions doing more than two damage is not just present, but often likely, whereas Shock will only ever do two damage unless something else is artificially improving its performance.
The answer is that the Philosophy of Fire, like any good combination strategy, is inherently non-interactive. Think back to the origins of Magic. Think back to the words that we use to describe the cards that we read about and talk about every day. Burn is called direct damage, or sometimes"cheese." Many of you out there probably take a term like"direct damage" as a given. But there is a reason that the term came to be: with burn, the damage is done directly, without any mechanically consistent way of being stopped, unlike creature damage. You can block a creature, but there is no way to"block" a Lightning Bolt or Psionic Blast unless you are playing with Circle of Protection: Red or some similar. That's why burn is cheesey or cheap. It's like you snuck up on someone from behind with a plastic bag, or tripped an old lady."Erhnam Djinn I can handle, it's this burn stuff I can't block."
This level of non-interactivity makes the Philosophy of Fire perfect for hybrid strategies. One of the problems with even the most consistent creature decks is that they peter out. Savannah Lions sure is fantastic on turn 1, but if all you have is the attack phase to kill the opponent, getting the last measly point in can sometimes be a chore. He has creature elimination, blockers, and all kinds of annoying stuff interacting with your Savannah Lions in such a way that they're not killing him!
Some hybrid strategies, like finishing the opponent off with some Shocks after you've softened him up with Jackal Pup and Blistering Firecat beats, are obvious. The power of the Philosophy of Fire in these cases is that it illuminates your victory path, tells you what the right play is, as long as you know your deck. You can pretty easily weigh your chances of winning against the opponent's life total and your other plays. You can count how many cards you need to win, if you can win at all. That is why you will often see a pro taking a painful hit rather than eliminating a creature with a burn spell late in a game: he knows that if he uses his Shock to extend the game, to not lose in the next turn or two, he might no longer have the resources to win at all.
Look at the most popular deck in recent times, Ravager Affinity. The reason Ravager Affinity is so formidable is that it plays two different first rate plans. The first one is to overwhelm the opponent with speed and power. The best draws, with Arcbound Ravager and multiple Affinity for Artifacts creatures backing it up, can erase a life total very quickly using straight up beatdown. The modular mechanic, and the Ravager's ability to move damage around even when the wrong creature gets blocked, lessen Affinity's need for direct creature elimination in most matchups while threats like Myr Enforcer match the speed and size of even a green opponent's best drops.
But Affinity can also play a strategy similar to the Philosophy of Fire. With Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault both in play, every Seat of the Synod is also one point of damage, just like when Adrian was finishing his opponents off with Landslide. As part of an Alpha Strike, the Ravager + Disciple combo is a true and classic Philosophy of Fire tactic, with every card contributing two points, one from the Disciple's ability, one from the eventual Modular counter hit. Note that this kind of hybridized finishing strategy supporting a deck with strong initial beatdown potential is not so different from hitting the opponent with a Blistering Firecat so that even if every artifact (or unaffiliated other card thereafter) doesn't play exactly according to the 1 card = 2 damage formula, they all represent a significant percentage of the opponent's remaining life total. Once again, we have a situation where we know exactly how many cards we need to win, using what threats. Again, it is easy to see how this kind of knowledge can help us weigh our options during even the most challenging turns.
A more direct non-red hybrid strategy is U/G with Wild Mongrel. Odyssey fueled U/G decks of every mechanic were great at getting the beat on... but many times faltered in the midgame, as the opponent was able to get some relevant blockers out, blow up attackers, or remove the relevant enablers. One tactic against decks with entrenched defensive positions was to borrow one out of the Psychatog playbook, setting up Upheaval + Wild Mongrel. For a deck that could do the first ten pretty consistently, finishing the opponent with Wild Mongrel's two power and eight cards in the grip was pretty academic once Upheaval resolved.
My favorite hybrid strategy, though, is probably the Mono-Black Control sideboard swap from Regionals 2003.
Kai's Our deck:
2 Cabal Coffers
Kai's This deck was an auto-win in every matchup but Wake and Zombies in game one. The problem was that many G/R decks were bringing in Compost after board. Fighting the Compost directly was a waste of time against G/R (as opposed to U/G, who would never have more than four Circular Logics, no matter how many cards they drew) as the opponent would just amass a critical number of Red cards and crush us with his own Philosophy of Fire hybrid strategy.
we brought I thought of bringing in Laquatus's Champion and played a burn plan. This plan entailed casting a total of three spells proactively: 1-2 Laquatus's Champions and 1-2 Corrupts. The opponent was dead and everything else went to defense, whether it set off Compost or not. Our valuations were six points instead of two, we usually got a six point hit in with the Champion in the Red Zone, and we almost always mised a critical point from the opponent's own Wooded Foothills or Karplusan Forest, but the hybrid strategy was nevertheless pretty similar to the non-interactive combinations we've talked about in other examples: no matter how many cards the opponent drew off of Compost, there was no way he could defend himself against our direct damage; that we were blocking with our burn spells was just insult added to injury. Note that the modular specificity and combination feel of this plan was one of its best features. Knowing exactly what we needed to assemble to win, along with the fact that those"combination pieces" had the added benefit of saving life points both by life gain and blocking, went a long way in guiding our plays. It's a lot easier to win when you have a clear path to victory with readily identifiable measurables along the way. The exciting thing about the Philosophy of Fire today is the addition of some new cards in Champions of Kamigawa. Though I don't have a full spoiler, I have already started to think about new archetypes based on the preview articles on MagicTheGathering.com. Next week I am going to talk about one such deck... let us say a Philosophy of Fire hybrid strategy after my own heart.
[Editor's Note: I have been informed that next week, Mr. Flores will be talking about one Christopher Pikula, Wall Street Millionaire and champion of New York City Stand-Up Comedy clubs.]