I recently had the pleasure of playing in the Face to Face Games Toronto Magic: The Gathering Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny. This event was, for many players, the culmination of a 6-month grind through other Sunday Showdown events in order to accumulate enough points for an invite.
My own story involved playing a small Legacy showdown a week prior, which I Top 4’d. I was entering into this event with 0 qualifier points, having only played one other showdown in the season, where I did poorly (I can’t remember how poorly). Seeing as this event was late into the season and Legacy in Toronto has recently been dominated by the same batch of astute players (read: Matthew Dilks, Edgar Magalhaes, and Andrew Gordon, among others), it was not surprising that everybody else in the Top 4 was already queued for the invitational. From the semifinals, I was graciously scooped into 1st place.
This sufficed for an invite. It thus required me to think a bit more about modern, one of the invitational’s formats. I have been trying to get a grip on the format for a while now. It hasn’t been easy for me. I was quick to assemble Five-Colour Humans when that deck first broke-out, but never thought it was all that powerful (it now looks like the deck is on a real downswing). I tried other flavour-of-the-week decks as well, hipster that I am. In the end, I was very close to registering a ‘safe’ U/W control list (congrats to Lucas Siow for his semifinal placing with that archetype), packing a few Runed Halos to shore-up the Valakut matchup. But I had also been piloting another spicy number, doing fairly well in smaller events. The deck is just so weird that I didn’t know whether to trust my results or not. Armed with U/W and the spice on Sunday morning, my decision was eventually rendered significantly less complicated by the fact that I had been partying until 3 a.m. the night before and was in no condition to play control for five rounds. At least, that’s what I told myself. I’m not sure what I did register is any easier to play than U/W control. Hopefully you’ll see why by the end of this article.
Here’s what I ended up playing:
B/R Hollow One, Ben Winokur
This deck ended up doing the bulk of the work that led me to the Top 8. This list was not fully refined, I suspect, even though I had managed to get in a few weeklies with various permutations, and managed a decent record at the recent Team Trios Open. Rather than write an invitational tournament report, I want to discuss the deck in broad strokes, including some remarks about what could be improved.
B/R Hollow Call and the Case of Burning Inquiry
This deck is a strange mixture of midrange durability and aggression. It is also reasonably consistent. The textures of some hands encourage going very deep on large Flameblade Adepts / Anglers / Hollow Ones, while others encourage the slow, grindy plan of chipping away with the smaller graveyard creatures. Sometimes both halves come together, and there is very little that your opponent can do. I prefer this version, at least in theory, to Vengevine-driven lists which were recently piloted at Grand Prix Oklahoma City by Matt Nass, because it is less dependent on the graveyard than Matt’s version. Flameblade Adept, Hollow One, and seven bolts provide a reasonable density of ways to fight through cards like Rest in Peace. Bloodghast and Flamewake Phoenix are both eminently castable, by the way. One even flies and has haste.
Often, your opening hand does not provide the best indicator of what’s to come—we are, after all, playing a play-set of the extremely volatile Burning Inquiry. I think that this is where the primary source of complexity lies for this deck. Burning Inquiry frequently prompts tough questions like the following:
1) It’s my turn 2. Do I play this land now so that if I cast burning inquiry I can potentially discard this Fiery Temper via madness, or do I hold the land in case I end up being able to discard Bloodghast(s), so that I can play the land after Faithless Looting resolves and return them to play this turn? What if I discard my only other land and not a Fiery Temper? What if I draw into lands so that it’s very unlikely I discard them all?
2) My hand size isn’t very big right now. Do I bother waiting a turn to cast this Burning Inquiry so that I can decrease my chance of discarding these Anglers / Hollow Ones? Maybe I don’t need to resolve them all, and discarding one would be fine. Is that enough reason to pull the trigger?
3) Do I even want to discard these Flamewake Phoenixes, since I don’t control a Hollow One / Gurmag to trigger ferocious with? I don’t know if I will draw into a 4+ power creature, and if I don’t, I could have just cast this phoenix and attacked for two. What should I do?
Faithless Looting is, by and large, the better card precisely because you control the outcome of its resolution, rendering the above questions obsolete (a version of question 1 still remains with faithless in mind). It is only ‘by and large’ better, mind you, for a few reasons. The first is that a resolved Faithless Looting does not enable a turn 1 Hollow On—unless you also manage to cycle a Street Wraith—whereas Burning Inquiry does. The second is that looting is slower to set up a Gurmag Angler. Some matchups encourage going all in on these bigger creatures, even at the risk of discarding them to your own Burning Inquiry.
The biggest reason, however, for why the looting vs. inquiry assessment is difficult has to do with an additional question, which is different from questions (1)-(3) in that it does not focus on the bad outcomes for your lines of play that burning inquiry might generate. This is the question of when Burning Inquiry can be used to disrupt your opponent. Here are three scenarios:
A) My clock consists in a measly pair of Bloodghasts. My opponent is still at a healthy life total. But they have not managed to cast anything for a few turns. I could set up a faster kill if I cast Burning Inquiry (perhaps I have a juicy pair of Fiery Tempers in hand that I can madness, or Hollow Ones that are stranded in my hand). But if I do, I may dig my opponent into action. But maybe they just end up discarding that action. What do I do?
B) My opponent passed the turn with three blue mana available, four lands total. I have them for a cryptic command in hand. If I cast this Burning Inquiry now, my opponent might get scared of having to discard it, and thus cast it pre-combat to tap my creatures. I can then play a land and return this hasty Bloodghast to play / use Flamewake Phoenix’s ferocious trigger to get in a few points. The downside is that I probably end up discarding this Hollow One / Gurmag angler, since I have very few cards in hand. What do I do?
C) My opponent has two tron lands in play. They’ve got that glimmer in their eye—a glimmer that only resolving a Karn on turn 3 can provide. Urzatron is imminent. Nothing in my hand is great to discard to Burning Inquiry. In fact, I run the risk of discarding my only other enabler (say, cathartic reunion) for later turns. Maybe I’ve just drawn into a Flameblade Adept and want to hold the inquiry for the next turn, when I can attack with it. Still, there’s a chance I discard their tron land and keep them off axis for a turn or two if I do it now. Maybe this Bloodghast / Flameblade Adept starts pushing the advantage. Maybe I can bolt the Karn when they exile my first threat. But what if the play is Wurmcoil instead? Then my bolt is useless and I’ve lost my window to possibly make them discard it. What do I do?
Scenario A is more generic than scenarios B and C. These scenarios also run in different directions. The first concerns where and when not casting a Burning Inquiry is potentially disruptive to your opponent. The other concerns where and when casting it is potentially disruptive. Scenario A is likely to come up against control decks that have burned a few copies of Path to Exile on your bigger threats and are looking to find a way to turn the corner. Scenario B is entirely about the existence of Cryptic Command. Scenario C was described with tron in mind, but it does generalize. Think of a matchup like Storm: maybe you kill their first Electromancer and they didn’t manage to play another. Give them too many turns and they’ll find it. Cast inquiry and risk finding it for them anyway.
I don’t think these scenarios are solved; that is, I think answers to both hinge deeply on whether you can get reads on your opponent, and on whether you are good enough at figuring out what the risk / reward outcomes are going to look like given the exact nature of your hand. There’s no substitute for experience in this regard, and I’m only just starting to feel like I’ve honed my intuitions enough for them to properly guide me through my games.
Well, that’s a lot of words on burning inquiry. I don’t think other cards warrant nearly as much discussion, as you can probably figure out for yourself. Let’s just go through a few things anyway, for my peace of mind.
You may have seen lists playing x copies of Goblin Lore. I am not convinced the card is good; Burning Inquiry is already our most variance-generating and difficult card to properly cast. Goblin Lore does draw one more card than it discards, mitigating the risk of disaster somewhat, but it seems to me that it would be best just to find something else. For my part, I’ve been fairly happy with cathartic reunion. I say fairly because there are frustrating situations that pop up reasonably often. These are:
1) Not having a Street Wraith, and wondering whether tapping out on turn 2 to cast Cathartic Reunion would be better than waiting until turn 3, so that you can certainly cast Hollow One (the temptation to cast it on turn 2 is real: what if you just draw the wraith?)
2) Wondering whether to wait until turn 3 to also cast Fiery Temper off the madness trigger
Goblin Lore is subject to (2) just as much as Cathartic Reunion is, so that doesn’t skew my favour in either direction. (1) is real, but the cost you pay for ensuring turn 2 Hollow One with Goblin Lore is precisely that you don’t ensure it…You are playing even more random discard, after all.
Some lists have played 2 Cathartic Reunion and 1 Goblin Lore. This is probably a nod to considerations like the above. Instead, I’ve been fiddling with a copy of Collective Brutality in the maindeck. I think it is a better maindeck card for this deck than most others, since even if the only useable mode is the life drain, you still get to put a few cards in the bin, trigger Flameblade Adepts, and whatever. The upside for when it is good, however, is enormous; think of matchups that are bound to be tough, like burn (we are a Street Wraith deck).
You’ll also notice that I don’t play the fourth Fiery Temper. This is what I cut for the copy of Collective Brutality. My thought was that Fiery Temper is frequently the worst / most awkward card in your deck. When it’s good, it is good for killing creatures / reach. Collective Brutality can still kill creatures and burn the opponent, so it is functionally similar. When Fiery Temper is bad, it’s because it requires the fortunes of madness to be worth casting. Otherwise it is far too inefficient mana-wise. Collective Brutality is slightly less bad in this respect, costing only 2, but is also more versatile, since it can strip Scapeshifts / Supreme Verdicts / Cryptic Commands / whatever from the opponent’s hand. This might suggest cutting more Fiery Tempers for more Collective Brutalities, but this would be an over-adjustment: we still want a sufficient density of payoffs for our discard theme. At any rate, sometimes Collective Brutality discarding Fiery Temper is enough to kill a Gurmag Angler / Tasigur out of Grixis Death’s Shadow (though I do cut the Collective Brutality for game 2 against that deck).
Here’s a brief list of points related to other cards:
• Flamewake Phoenix is no joke. It is frequently under-respected. Play it a few times, I think you’ll agree the card is good.
• The mix of basic lands: 3 of each might seem like a lot, and I’m not exactly sure what the right number should be. I would probably cut a swamp for a red fetch if I could play again tomorrow.
• Fiery Temper: I’ve talked a decent amount about the awkward situations this card can put you in. A general heuristic is to not tunnel vision too hard on getting maximum value out of it. If you can set up a quick gurmag / hollow one, it is often correct to just pitch this card for no value. I’m even willing to field suggestions regarding a card that can replace Fiery Temper entirely, though I’m not sure it exists.
• Ancient Grudge in the sideboard: I am not sure if it is worth playing this card over something like shattering spree. Ancient Grudge is discardable, but you don’t play that many ways to fetch Stomping Ground. This either means you play a second Stomping Ground (bleh…), or you just hope that you don’t discard Shattering Spree and play that instead. Both cards can beat Chalice of the Void, though Shattering Spree might even be better against Affinity in some spots (read: when you have 3 mana or more).
• Golgari Charm: I played this card because I thought it would be decent against certain Affinity board states (a tough matchup), but also because it kills Detention Sphere and counters Supreme Verdict out of U/W control and it kills Rest in Peace. Playing this card should have almost assuredly pushed me to play a second Stomping Ground, but I didn’t think carefully about this at the time. I’ve seen lists play up to two copies and I appreciate the reasons for why.
• Lightning Axe: this could have been a second Big Game Hunter, but I liked that Lightning Axe is more flexible to cast (mana-wise and being instant speed). It’s worse against the card Death’s Shadow, and against Chalice of the Void, so it’s possible that it’s just worse than Big Game Hunter, given that you bring in BGH against Eldrazi Tron and Grixis Death’s Shadow primarily.
• If you bring in Big Game Hunter, be wary of using your single Call to the Netherworld too early on a Street Wraith. You can potentially buy-back BGH and terminate a second creature.
• Leyline of the Void is very good in this deck. You can often pitch redundant copies to looting, so you don’t suffer from the ‘leyline topdeck’ problem like many other decks. I should probably have played a fourth, but I didn’t anticipate facing much Dredge, and felt that 3 was enough against storm given that I also have removal and discard.
I haven’t provided much in the way of matchup analysis or sideboarding advice. Modern is so wide open that this task terrifies me. I can say that Path to Exile + Snapcaster Mage decks are challenging in general. You often expend resources for early Gurmags / Hollow Ones, only to find them in exile shortly afterwards. The same goes for dumping stuff into a big Flameblade Adept in your mainphase.
Very aggressive stuff like Burn and Affinity are also tough: you often want to fetch Blood Crypts to ensure being able to cast whatever you find off of your looting effects, but are pushed to fetch basics instead, which can hamper development. You also play Street Wraith. In general you don’t win the Affinity race. I figured my Tron matchup was good, but maybe it’s not. I’ve lost the last few times I’ve faced it.
One thing for the bucket list is to test versions that eschew Bloodghast and Fiery Temper for Death’s Shadow and maindeck Thoughtseize. I am not sure if this deck is quite aggressive enough on the life total to warrant this move, nor is it clear that you have enough abusable graveyard / discard synergies left over if you cut all those cards. At the very least, I’ve had the thought that death’s shadow would make a good sideboard card to help with the burn matchup.
Any more insight into this archetype would be welcome.