My Pyromancer Ascension decks have garnered a lot of attention since last October when I first unveiled the new and powerful combo strategy. Pyromancer Ascension had lost a lot of thunder with the rotation of Time Warp. This column successfully created a Pyromancer Ascension deck that worked well in the new Standard format.
However, the most significant information here had nothing to do with Pyromancer Ascension. This column was, to my knowledge, the first public realization of the Deceiver Exarch / Splinter Twin combo. This combo ended up being one of the most powerful forces in Standard until Splinter Twin rotated. Even now, Deceiver Exarch / Splinter Twin remains one of the premier combo decks of the Modern format.
The Prerelease is an excellent place to make friends and a wonderful first chance to play with cards that haven't even been released yet. Those of you who follow the demand of cards know how coveted some of the cards from the new set are. Foil Mental Missteps can probably be traded for any Standard-legal card other than Jace, the Mind Sculptor. There are a lot of new cards that are just waiting to be broken. Playing with the new cards is also a great chance to learn how powerful particular cards might be. I've been to a lot of Prereleases expecting specific cards to be mediocre only to be pleasantly surprised by how powerful they were.
It's important to try and be proactive when approaching a new format. Control decks that win with card advantage and reactive cards need to know what they're reacting to. It's difficult to predict a metagame before any tournaments have been played. Decks like Blue-Black Control may end up being very powerful, but they're difficult to build when you're still unsure what you're trying to beat.
As many of you might expect, I'm looking forward to the return of Pyromancer Ascension as a promising deck for Standard. I've always been a Johnny; I would always rather play a combo deck than control or aggro. New Phyrexia introduces a handful of powerful new tools for a Pyromancer.
The first of these new tools is Gitaxian Probe. Pyromancer Ascension based strategies took a huge hit when Ponder rotated out of standard with Time Warp. Having two one mana cantrips makes ascending a lot easier. I'm not sure if Gitaxian Probe is as powerful as ponder in a vacuum, but it certainly increases the power level of your very good draws.
Gitaxian Probe allows a careful Pyromancer to ascend in such a way as to play around every interaction an opponent can muster. I recommend saving Gitaxian Probe until you're ready to make a move. You get to see your opponent's hand and, as a result, you can carefully play around every Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, and Nature's Claim.
I'll explain the goal and strategy of the Pyromancer Ascension deck for those who might be unfamiliar with its inner workings.
Pyromancer Ascension plays a lot of inexpensive card draw spells that serve double duty. The cheap card draw lets a Pyromancer find the deck's namesake enchantment early enough for it to matter. Once you've found the enchantment, the cheap card draw is exactly what you need to get two counters on Pyromancer Ascension.
You're not in a hurry to "combo" people when playing Pyromancer Ascension. The deck has all the tools it needs to play a careful control game and "turn on" the Ascension at a key point so it can take over the game. You would be surprised how difficult it becomes to lose when you're copying cards like Preordain and See Beyond. The card advantage created by your enchantment makes it very difficult for any opponent to win the game. Once you have an active Pyromancer Ascension, you can quickly sift through your deck until you find a copy of Call to Mind. Call to Mind has a powerful and interesting interaction with the enchantment. Copying Call to Mind essentially gives you four spells. Burning out an opponent is quite easy once the Ascension becomes active.
When building a Pyromancer deck it's important to play four of most cards. Redundancy is rewarded here because the enchantment requires you to draw spells in multiples. Cards with higher mana costs can be played as less than four-ofs, but that's only because it's difficult and oftentimes awkward when you're trying to activate a Pyromancer Ascension with any card that costs more than two mana.
I get a lot of emails about Pyromancer Ascension in which people send me their lists and ask me to make suggestions. There are many pitfalls that a deckbuilder must avoid when working on their Pyromancer Ascension deck.
It's difficult to do, but you have to strip yourself of all your worldly possessions. Creatures, artifacts, and non-Pyromancer Ascension enchantments are unplayable in this type of strategy. If you intend on winning with Pyromancer Ascension then you really need to move all-in on this type of strategy. Cards that don't work to trigger your Ascension are clunky and lead to difficult or bad draws.
Many players have begun to include the Splinter Twin / Deceiver Exarch combo, for example. (Splinter Twin lets Deceiver Exarch tap to create copy of Deceiver Exarch, which can untap the original, which can tap to create another copy. Rinse and repeat until an arbitrarily large number of hasty 1/4s crash into the red zone.) This combo is very powerful, but I don't think it has a place in Pyromancer Ascension strategies. Again, playing eight cards that don't work to power up your Ascension leaves you in a lot of situations wherein you cannot get the Pyromancer Ascension online or you don't have any worthwhile spells to copy once you have the Ascension out and active. I believe that Splinter Twin decks will find most of their success when they splash black and play some combination of Duress and Inquisition of Kozilek.
That being said, I do feel that Pyromancer decks want the Splinter Twin / Deceiver Exarch combo in their sideboards. It's important to have access to something like this because it puts opponents in awkward spots where they don't know whether or not they can side out their removal. I probably wouldn't even sideboard in the combo against most players, but the presence of these cards in my sideboard will force my opponent to play suboptimal or completely dead cards, even in the second and third games.
Another common pitfall that deckbuilders encounter when building Pyromancer Ascension is not including enough card draw. It's extremely difficult to activate your enchantment if you're not playing enough card draw spells. Also, once you have the Ascension active, card draw spells are the most powerful thing you can cast. A cheap, simple cantrip becomes an absolutely broken "draw two" for one mana. The card draw spells chain into one another until you happen upon enough burn / countermagic to lock up the game.
Would-be Pyromancers need to make tough decisions on their last few slots, but the skeleton of the deck is straightforward. I think you need to play four copies of Gitaxian Probe, Preordain, Pyromancer Ascension, Mana Leak, See Beyond, Lightning Bolt, and Burst Lightning. Once you add a few copies of Call to Mind, you really don't have a lot of room to work with. I like playing a few Foresee. Once you have an active Pyromancer Ascension, a single Foresee is going to find all the tools you need. Staggershock was a valuable addition before the rotation, but Deceiver Exarch makes it a lot less exciting.
Personally, I think Into the Roil is going to gain a lot of value from the new set. Into the Roil is strong against Splinter Twin / Deceiver Exarch, planeswalkers, and Swords. Into the Roil favorably interacts with every deck except the most aggressive Mox Opal decks. Spell Pierce is also an exceptional tool. It's important to prevent your opponent from sticking something like Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Jace is the only card that has a chance of keeping up with your draw-go game. Spell Pierce is also valuable when attempting to protect your Ascension.
Nature's Claim is quickly going to become a format staple. I expect that the new metagame will feature combo decks that rely on enchantments, Mox Opal aggro decks, and Stoneforge Mystic decks. Nature's Claim is a powerful tool against all of these decks. I'm not particularly confident in the strength of decks like Green-Blue-Black and Blue-Red-Green after rotation, but Nature's Claim is a small glimmer of hope.
I fully expect Nature's Claim to regularly appear in people's main decks within the next few weeks. I suggest adding Mental Missteps to the Pyromancer Ascension sideboard in an effort to deal with this. Mental Misstep is a powerful tool that a Pyromancer can sideboard against a lot of different hate. Inquisition of Kozilek and Duress were always very strong against Pyromancer Ascension, and Mental Misstep helps us stick an Ascension underneath our opponent's discard or protects the enchantment from Nature's Claims once on the battlefield.
Mox Opal aggro decks have gotten a lot more powerful with the introduction of New Phyrexia. You can read about the Tempered Steel version of the deck in the column I wrote last week. It's important that we give this deck the amount of credit it deserves. If we skimp on sideboard hate then it's very possible that we just get run over by them. Pyroclasm seems to be the best option available in Standard.
I don't recommend just tapping out for a Pyroclasm unless you're getting absurd card advantage or are about to die. You need to leave countermagic open to stop Tempered Steel from hitting the battlefield. A resolved Tempered Steel makes all of their creatures a lot scarier; they hit harder and they outclass Pyroclasm. Again, I want the full playset of Pyroclasm in the sideboard here. It's unlikely we can beat the dedicated Mox Opal aggro decks if we don't give ourselves as much of a chance as we can to draw our Pyroclasms in Games 2 and 3.
Now that we've discussed all the different angles you can approach Pyromancer Ascension builds from, I'd like to show you the budget list I would recommend.
It's worth noting just how exciting the new set is. Caw-Blade seemed to have a tight stranglehold on the format, and beating it meant you had to make your deck weak to aggressive decks and tap-out decks like Valakut and Blue-Red-Green.
New Phyrexia changes everything, though. Standard is about to be a wonderfully diverse metagame. Aggressive strategies are going to receive huge bonuses like Porcelain Legionnaire, Hex Parasite, and Mental Misstep out of the sideboard. Tezzeret control decks will have access to Torpor Orb, a card that allows them to beat Caw-Blade–style decks in a normal card-advantage war. Combo decks are being upgraded beyond anything I could have imagined.
There's even room for innovation. Lew Laskin wants to play Awakening Zone and Fresh Meat alongside each other. Think about it; you can sacrifice all your Eldrazi Spawn and cast Fresh Meat. The Eldrazi Spawn will fuel your mana so you don't even have to worry about tapping out. With a healthy amount of card draw and counterspells, you can do some really impressive things with your opponent's end step.
Next week I'll be able to play some test games now that the cards will be available. I know a lot of you love that part of the column and, unfortunately, it just isn't possible to play games with cards that don't exist.
I hope you all enjoyed this exploration of Pyromancer Ascension in the new Standard. If you haven't found out where your nearest Prerelease is, then I'd be sure to check while you're here on MagicTheGathering.com. I will be slinging cards at the Prerelease at Reality's Edge in North Arlington, New Jersey this coming weekend.