Hello and welcome to 2013's first edition of Perilous Research. Today, I've got a powerful new card from Gatecrash that's going to make a lot of waves in competitive play. A lot has happened in the world of Magic Online since our last discussion. The Modern PTQ season has begun and Magic Online's best and brightest have been hard at work, attacking the format from its weakest angles.
Many of the best-performing Modern decks have already been established for some period of time. Decks like White-Blue Angels, Spirit Jund, Splinter Twin Combo, and Scapeshift continue to post respectable finishes with some level of consistency.
However, Magic Online rewards innovation. Over the past two weeks, we've watched aggressive red and black-red decks be catapulted into the realm of tier one. Many of these decks are extremely burn heavy, choosing to aim direct damage at their opponents as early as the first turn. There are a lot of spells that deal 3 damage for one or two mana in Modern. As such, one can build a deck with a very specific goal in mind: Resolve seven spells.
Let's take a look at Jokerstars's 4–0 list from a Daily Event on 12/31/2012.
This deck does one thing and one thing only: BURN! Modern players have grown comfortable taking loads of damage from their lands; just about every major archetype is bursting at the seams with fetch lands and Ravnica shocklands. This deck takes full advantage of the current state of the format by punishing players for their greedy mana bases.
The quick nature of the Magic Online metagame means that players react to new archetypes almost as fast as they're created. The success of Burn strategies has encouraged many players to start including a few copies of Timely Reinforcements in their sideboards. Kitchen Finks is being played over Lingering Souls in some Jund lists again. Obstinate Baloth is being seen in sideboards. Almost everyone has found the best source of lifegain for their particular archetype.
The Burn decks need to react to the heavy sideboard hate coming from every direction. Flames of the Blood Hand seems like the best option and we're now seeing one to four copies of the powerful burn spell in just about every Burn strategy. Unfortunately, Flames of the Blood Hand costs three mana. Oftentimes, the Burn deck will be on the draw and be unable to react to a turn-three Timely Reinforcements or Kitchen Finks. Even a small amount of lifegain can offset the Burn deck's line to victory.
The difference between two and three mana is huge here. Flames of the Blood Hand was excellent for preempting Loxodon Hierarch, even on the draw, but Magic cards are more powerful than they used to be and worthwhile lifegain cards that cost three mana are the new format standard. This puts a lot of pressure on the Burn deck to win the first game. Otherwise, it will be in a rough spot when the opponent has a hate card on the play.
Imagine if there were a playable effect like Flames of the Blood Hand for two mana. Burn decks would be able to compete against the strongest hate cards, even on the draw. Unfortunately, there wasn't a strong enough card to fill that role...
Skullcrack is one of the better cards we've ever seen for decks dedicated to doming. The most streamlined post-Gatecrash Burn decks won't be caught out in the cold when they're confronted with hate. They'll simply crack their opponent in the skull and continue unloading burn at the opponent.
Flames of the Blood Hand has been a necessary evil in Burn decks since its initial printing. Doing 4 damage for three mana is a fine deal, but it's extremely important to offset an opponent's lifegain. Skullcrack accomplishes the same goal (albeit 1 less damage) for one less mana.
Card advantage is a term that's tossed around loosely these days. Every advanced Planeswalker is familiar with card economy, and most of the best players would be quick to point toward card advantage (or card economy) when asked what the most important in-game concept to competitive Magic is.
Card economy can, most simply, be understood by examining how many cards are gained by you and lost by your opponent through a particular action. The simplest of these concepts can be illustrated by a card like Sphinx's Revelation; casting Sphinx's Revelation for two nets you two cards and you only used one card. This is a positive trade. More complex, more valuable forms of card advantage can be achieved by dispatching more than one of your opponent's permanents with a single card like Supreme Verdict. For example, if I cast Arc Trail and kill my opponent's Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise, then I just dealt with two cards by only using one card. Some cards can create card advantage through the element of surprise. When my opponent attacks with a Dreg Mangler and I flash in Restoration Angel and block, then I've just dealt with one of my opponent's cards, only used one card, and have a 3/4 flyer (certainly worth a card) to show for it.
A strong understanding of this concept is necessary to play competitively, but the concept of card advantage has hidden complexities in specific archetypes.
Burn strategies are often confusing when observed through the lens of card economy. Most decks would be crazy to aim a Lightning Bolt at their opponent's face on turn one. That's one card for no cards—just a bad deal.
Burn decks, however, need to think of cards in terms of damage per card. More often than not, 3 damage is a worthwhile cause for a card. An opponent starts at 20, and this means that seven spells will be enough to win the game. If your burn spells only dealt 2 damage, you would need ten spells. In formats like Modern, you can expect opponents to take a few damage from their lands. Oftentimes, as few as five cards are needed to reduce an opponent's life total to 0.
Lifegain cards are much more efficient for their mana cost than burn spells. Timely Reinforcements, for example, is valuable card advantage when you're playing against a Burn deck. Kitchen Finks is usually worth a couple cards also. Skullcrack negates the advantage of these cards while still meeting the industry standard of damage per card. This ultimately means that Burn players will need fewer cards to kill their opponents.
When playing decks like this, it's important to remember the value of cards in relation to your opponent's life total. Savvy Burn players would never keep four lands and three spells. They recognize that their deck, with twenty (or fewer!) lands will likely serve up two lands and four spells if they mulligan. However, when on six cards it becomes correct to keep three lands and three spells.
These decisions seem small, but these are the small edges that the better Burn players take advantage of. These are the players who win with burn.
We can expect Skullcrack to be present, in some number, in every Burn deck post-Gatecrash. After sideboarding, I wouldn't expect a pyromancer to have fewer than four copies. Here's a sample decklist of something I would expect to see on Magic Online after Gatecrash's release.
I would never want to play against this deck in a million years. Sure, I can just jam a bunch of Kor Firewalkers into my sideboard and cross my fingers, hoping to draw one, but that's a very narrow sideboard slot that will probably punish me over the course of a tournament. Modern Burn will be a force to be reckoned with once Gatecrash is released. We've yet to see the full effect that Burn will have on the metagame.
Here's what we can expect to happen in Modern if Burn gets a lot of traction thanks to Skullcrack. Initially, the Burn players will enjoy success against the midrange format that currently exists. Burn may have a lot of weaknesses, but it absolutely demolishes the majority of decks with Bloodbraid Elf.
Players will react quickly by either filling their sideboards with anti-burn cards or switching to combo decks. The players who chose to switch to combo will be rewarded by the midrange players who just cut all their anti-combo sideboard slots to make room for more lifegain and damage prevention.
The combo decks will do well initially, but the midrange decks can always revert to their current state and be reasonably well positioned again.
Then the format becomes a healthy monster. Midrange decks (With lots of discard spells and disruption) beating combo decks, aggro/burn decks beating midrange decks, and combo decks beating aggro/burn decks. That is, until someone comes along and turns the format on its head again.
Skullcrack | Art by Dave Kendall
Skullcrack won't just be a Modern phenomenon. In Standard, players will quickly recognize the potential upgrades to aggressive red strategies that become possible when you can prevent an opponent from gaining life with Thragtusk, Centaur Healer, and Sphinx's Revelation.
We've already observed aggressive Red strategies perform well in spite of these incredibly powerful anti-burn spells being everywhere. Skullcrack could be what the red decks need to push themselves back into tier one territory.
Be sure to check out all the Gatecrash previews here on DailyMTG.com and check in with the Card Image Gallery to stay up to date with all the previewed cards. I'll be back next week with another preview. It's never too early to find the location of your nearest Prerelease and prepare to release the crackin'!