My Fires - Part 1
If one seeks to understand the current Standard format, the best place to start is probably Fires of Yavimaya. In terms of pure raw power and strength in the abstract, Fires of Yavimaya is the best deck in the format. That doesn't make it the best deck to play, but it does make the deck a solid choice if it is not being actively hated. The deck is also a lot of fun. The version I played in PT-Chicago was (in my opinion) better tuned than other versions, but not better metagamed. Instead, I intentionally chose to play a more 'pure' version of the deck, maximizing the deck's power against an unknown or undefined field. It also (of course) was tuned with an eye toward all the major decks I expected to face, and I had a plan and a sideboarding plan against all of them. Using my normal deck analysis method, I'll start with a decklist then begin discussing individual cards. If you're looking for a tournament report from the Pro Tour, one is available at magic.mindripper.com, since the Sideboard does not normally publish tournament reports.
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Chimeric Idol
4 Fires of Yavimaya
4 Saproling Burst
4 Karplusan Forest
4 Rishadan Port
3 Jade Leech
3 Two-Headed Dragon
2 Dust Bowl
4 Kavu Chameleon
2 Reverent Silence
All right, time to start breaking down the deck.
Forest: With both Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise in the deck, it needs more green sources to ensure its first turn green mana than it does to get its long term green mana. If the eight sources from the Birds and Elves were to count, the deck would go up to 22 green sources, which is more than enough. Instead, the crucial number is the 14 ways to cast a Bird on the first turn. That's one short of where I wanted it to be, but the mana is extremely tight. I felt this sacrifice was worth it. The other issue with basic Forests is Submerge and Lumbering Satyr. Nowadays, having a basic Forest in play can be a significant disadvantage. Son of Hermit had a similar mana base, and with Treetop Village it could often avoid playing a basic Forest against decks with Submerge. But that's almost never really an option here. The only case where that comes up is after an Obliterate. Try and recover without a Forest if possible against blue. Against decks with Satyr, the only chance is to sacrifice all the Forests to Dust Bowl.
Karpulsian Forest: These are a no-brainer. I don't know how many I'd want to play if there was no limit on them, but it would be a whole lot more than four. Colored mana is at a premium for this deck, with the first turn green problem and then later on Two-Headed Dragon. The damage from painlands cost me at most two games in fifteen rounds, and I suspect it didn't cost any. On the flip side, the colored mana saved me more times than I can count. Painlands are amazing.
Mountain: Maindeck, there are only two red spells besides the one Earthquake: Two-Headed Dragon and Assault, which gets cast more than Battery, but not exclusively. For the Dragon to work properly, a third of the mana needs to be red; to get maximum use out of it, about half would have to be. That's clearly not an option. With Assault, often it needs to be cast on the first or second turn to stop a Bird or Llanowar Elf on the other side; that's one of the two main reasons it won out over Urza's Rage or Rhystic Lightning. So as with all lands, getting as many Mountains as possible into the deck was a big goal. The conclusion was that to use Dragon well five Mountains were needed, so that's what ended up being the final tally. Anything more would have required a sacrifice in color or of a colorless land the deck couldn't afford to lose. As it was, that already meant sacrificing Keldon Necropolis. In fact, the need for these Mountains was the primary problem with Two-Headed Dragon, but the sideboard is naturally very red so it was probably necessary anyway.
Rishadan Port: Sometimes they get caught in a Tsabo's Web. Sometimes there's even a Teferi's Response. But Response is still very rare in Standard. I only met one player out of a sea of blue decks that used it, and that was in the first round. It would be a safe bet to not worry about Response until there is proof of its existence. The same cannot be said for Tsabo's Web. In fact, it's safe to expect Tsabo's Web to show up in multiples maindeck in any blue deck that uses no vulnerable lands; only when I see a Dust Bowl or Rishadan Port or Kor Haven would I stop worrying. At that point, Response actually becomes something to consider after sideboarding. For this reason, do not play or use Rishadan Port when it makes no difference against these decks, if there is danger that a Web could fall. Of course, if this action forces a Web onto the table and that allows a big creature to resolve due to the mana tapped for the Web, that's fine. But if casting a spell like Fires of Yavimaya, don't tap or play a Rishadan Port without a reason. That reason can be as simple as a second one in hand, but there needs to be a reason. Even as one shot deals they can still be extremely useful later on. Use them when it makes it unlikely the opponent will be able to cast the crucial counter, or when it will buy the crucial turn when they cannot play Wrath of God or Nether Spirit or Blinding Angel due to mana or colored mana problems. Used carefully under a Web, Rishadan Port will show just how amazingly powerful it is.
Dust Bowl: This is one card that almost no other Fires decks used. In my opinion, that was a mistake. Dust Bowl is a great card in the Fires deck. The first reason is the number of lands in the deck. Fires decks want to play twenty five lands because of their casting costs, but they can't. That would mean there are thirty three cards in the deck whose primary purpose is to produce mana. With Dust Bowl, that becomes possible. Almost no decks run on no basic lands, and this allows the deck to use surplus mana for a good cause. In addition, Dust Bowl just absolutely wrecks control decks, and randomly wrecks other decks as well. It also lets the deck play more land, and land is key to beating control decks as well. When they Wrath, the deck must respond with a real threat. That requires a good land count. There are only two worries with Dust Bowl to stand in the way of these big advantages. One is that it only produces colorless mana, which is a real issue for a deck strapped for both of its colors. The conclusion was that having one less colored land (one Dust Bowl came from an otherwise colored land, one did not) was acceptable, and more important than Keldon Necropolis. The other issue is Tsabo's Web, which now effects six lands instead of four. This can indeed be a problem, but it's amazing how good Dust Bowl is against decks with multiple Tsabo's Webs in them. The key is to use Dust Bowl as an uncounterable Stone Rain most of the time. As long as it doesn't get caught tapped by Tsabo's Web, the Bowl can be sacrificed to itself if it isn't going to untap. Normally this will take out a dualland, and be well worth the turn lost to tap that mana. Often this will come down to a question of risk against reward. A third turn Dust Bowl will blow up a Salt Marsh or Coastal Tower, but should it be sacrificed? In general, it should only be saved if Tsabo's Web wouldn't be a big deal and there is the potential to cripple the opponent's mana base. Everything effects this calculation, of course; there are two game plans, and whichever has the better chance of working this game should be used. The more is known about the opponent's exact configuration, the better.
Birds of Paradise: Just before I finally decided to run a Fires deck, I had a conversation with Scott Johns, and I stated "I know eight of the cards in my deck: four Birds of Paradise and four Llanowar Elves. Those are non-negotiable." To me, those are the cards that make the deck so good, more so than anything else. This deck has the best mana acceleration in the format. Birds of Paradise is the best of the best. It dodges Earthquake, chump blocks Blinding Angel and provides all colors of mana free of charge. One of the key questions in any given matchup is "will my Birds live?" If they will, the deck has four solid additional red sources beyond the nine lands and the Dragons are solid. If they do not live, things get trickier. That doesn't mean the Dragons get boarded out or anything, but it is something worth keeping in mind. When given a first turn choice between Birds and Elves, always go with Birds unless there's a specific reason not to. The best sphecific reason there is if whichever is played looks like it is going to die a horrible death, or the mana is clearly available and the opponent is playing a control deck where the Elf's power will be crucial. Better to save the quality creature for later on. Dougherty sideboarded two of them out in the semi-finals, and I will never understand that.
Llanowar Elves: They do have one important edge on the Birds, which is that they have power. There were no games where I delivered the kill primarily with Elves, but they did put me over the top every so often, especially when in combination with Blastoderm and a point or two of painland damage. Elves generally should not be willing to trade early on unless it's clear they don't matter either for speed or long term mana, but once they aren't needed for mana they become pure cannon fodder unless there is fear of Armageddon. Don't forget about Armageddon, though. Keeping Elves on the table is often a way to make the opponent too scared to blow up the lands, and against W/G (or the Red Zone) if the Elves start chumping the land could suddenly have a much shorter life span. Early on, it's generally not worth trying to bluff through the extra point of damage when the opponent could trade creatures, unless it's clear the opponent won't block. Keep in mind that attacking represents that the Elf isn't important. In particular, River Boa will almost never be willing to trade with the Llanowar.
Then there's the two lands that didn't make it:
Shivan Oasis: Coming in tapped may be acceptable for control decks, but it's unacceptable for a deck this aggressive. The curve may look like it is missing a two drop, but that's deceptive between all the one drops, tapping them for mana and using Rishadan Port. After that, it's quite likely that there will not be a free turn to play the Oasis, and drawing it off the top could ruin the day as well. Resorting to one can be done in an emergency, but it's much better not to have to. Everything added up perfectly, so the Oasis isn't needed. Playing with more than one or two is positively nuts.
Keldon Necropolis: The Necropolis is actually much better than it looks. There's no question that it is horribly expensive at 4R, but that's because the ability is so abusable. When playing a watered down version to practice against random players, I included one copy of Necropolis, and won several games by killing players with it or using it to tap River Boas before a big attack. There will often be surplus creatures, often Burst counters about to die or extra mana creatures. Beyond a certain point, the Necropolis can be activated and it can do a lot of damage. It also turns Assault into a removal spell for Blinding Angel. Alas, Dust Bowl and Necropolis did not both fit into the same mana base. Also note that it is crippled by Tsabo's Web and big time.
That's all for the lands. This analysis will continue moving through the deck.