My Fires - Part 6
Last time, after completing the analysis of individual cards, I began analysis of matchups with other green creature decks, concentrating on Fires but branching out to versions with white in them as well. The second group of matchups is against blue decks. Whether playing against monoblue, W/U control, Nether-Go or Eye-Go, many of the same basic principles apply. If there's one thing to keep in mind, it's this realization I had a while ago in Extended.
They don't have the counter.
Play like it isn't there
That's right. They don't have it - yet. That means the first few turns. On turn two, only Opt or Brainstorm can help them get to Counterspell, which is often the only counter in their deck that will work. Sometimes Power Sink gets thrown in. Either way, very often they simply will not have that counter. And when they do, often they will get to Accumulated Knowledge, Opt or something else instead of casting it if they aren't forced to stop something, letting them find land drops and additional countermagic. If threats hit the table turn after turn, a lot of the time there will be no answer. Out of nowhere they'll sigh, and say 'Yep. That resolves.' Then the Jade Leech starts attacking.
Early on, that's the principle that should guide the deck. If there is only one spell the opponent has not already either used or been shown not to have that would stop a spell, cast the spell without hesitation. That means 'walking into' Counterspell, Absorb or Undermine without a second thought. The only exception is when it would be easy to play around a counter, especially Absorb or Undermine by using Rishadan Port or Dust Bowl. In that case, it is often wise to wait and do so if there hasn't been a chance to use the appropriate spell yet. Counterspell, however, is silly to play around most of the time. If they have Counterspell it's going to be used, although test spelling it out of their hand is perfectly fine. The same goes for other counters as the game goes longer, but in general almost any chance to draw Counterspell itself out into the open is worthwhile. Thwart and Foil are also in the same category when their alternate casting costs are being paid.
Later on, it becomes a game of exhaustion. Their deck has some counter count, and can produce a new one some percentage of the time each turn. The Fires deck can produce a new threat some other percentage of the time, and generally it has larger percentage. That means that if threats and counters trade one for one, the Fires deck will win. The problem is cards like Nether Spirit or Blinding Angel that force bad trades onto the deck. That's how Fires loses when it loses, except for those games where Fact or Fiction and Accumulated Knowledge combine to wreck Fires.
That's a good introduction, but to move further the decks have to be split up. First is W/U control. W/U control then splits again into decks that kill with Millstone and decks that kill with Blinding Angel. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, because the kill card is mostly irrelevant to a control deck, but in this case Blinding Angel is a direct threat. It's actually important enough to change the entire attitude of the match. The key question is how many of the threatening permanents are being played, and which ones they are. Along with Blinding Angel are Story Circle and Teferi's Moat.
Suppose Fires gets to face a W/U deck that either doesn't have or didn't draw these cards. The U/W deck is now a mass of cards that either counter threats, kill one threat or sweep the board of threats with Rout or Wrath of God. He'll get to cast Fact or Fiction and maybe even gain advantage off Accumulated Knowledge and Tsabo's Web as well. But that can't compete with the sheer mass of threats in the Fires deck. As long as Wrath of God and Rout only get one non-mana creature each, he has to match every threat with an appropriate answer. That's even assuming that his mana is functional during this time, and that's not normally totally true.
The biggest issue is finding a time to cast Wrath of God. Casting it on turn four means letting a replacement creature come down without a fight, and it will normally be Blastoderm or Jade Leech. That then requires another Wrath of God or Rout to stay in the game, and casting that one may continue to present the same problem. Casting Wrath on turn six allows UU to be held back, but that requires the real original Counterspell, which is often required on turn two or three and often isn't drawn, and then there's this small problem called Rishadan Port. This is why Tsabo's Web is a good answer but not a complete one. Tapping that fifth land on this crucial turn means Counterspell is no longer castable, even though that's all Rishadan Port will ever get to do this game. If Tsabo's Web isn't on the board or there are multiple Ports, the deck may need seven, eight or even nine lands to pull off a Wrath safely. Many games are settled early by Dust Bowl and/or Rishadan Port locking the opponent out of the mana needed to stay in the game.
The key to the matchup is to use this inability of the opponent to answer threats on the table without tapping mana on his own turn, putting him one turn behind and in constant desperate need of both Wrath effects and land. The other routes to victory work as well, which are exhaustion of counter magic through test spelling, which will work eventually against versions without threatening permanents, and the option to ride Chimeric Idol to victory. The W/U control deck will normally have about four ways to kill an Idol, although they are instants. Without one of those four or an Angel, a second turn Idol will win the entire game seven turns later. Putting those aside, the main path is to put him behind on time. Rishadan Port in the early turns helps a ton here, as does them needing to take time for Tsabo's Web and Accumulated Knowledge (and even Opt). Casting the big threats early on before Accumulated Knowledge and Fact or Fiction have time to get cast, forces them to have the counter they need naturally, and as I said above, they often don't and even if they do that often denies them time to find the second one for next turn. Once the first creature hits the table, the game goes into mana control mode. If they ever deal with the threat, it will be via Wrath or Rout and that will allow a replacement onto the table. This is one place where having 25 lands in the deck is so critical.
The only other issue here is how to divide on Fact or Fiction. The answer to that question is to divide as aggressively as possible, not only against W/U but against other control decks and most of the time in general as well. By aggressive I mean trying as often as possible to put the opponent to a decision without a good answer. The way to do that is to make the opponent pay dearly for what he needs. No Plains in sight, especially with Dust Bowl working its magic? Put the Plains on one side, the other four cards on the other. Jade Leech coming in for the kill, and a Wrath of God flips over? Well, make him decide just how much he doesn't want to die today. The other common way to divide four against one is when the opponent is going to end up with more than seven cards in hand by taking the four card pile. Often they'll snatch up the cards and then realize a turn later that they're just going to end up discarding.
These kinds of decisions are easy; the hard ones are the Jedi Fact or Fictions, as in 'You WILL take the wrong pile.' I won multiple matches in Chicago by using these divisions. It comes up when all that matters is for the opponent to not take one of the cards. Most often the card is Blinding Angel, but it can be as simple as an Undermine that could be cast right away. In these cases, the key is to bribe the opponent into taking the wrong pile without making it obvious that he's being bribed into taking the wrong pile. Sometimes four against one divisions can be made without arising suspicion, but not always. The best example I've ever seen was probably in PT: Chicago.
My opponent was at 3 life, facing down a Blastoderm, and cast Fact or Fiction at end of turn. If he had Wrath of God he almost certainly would have used it. The five cards were Absorb, Fact or Fiction, Wrath of God, Story Circle and Counterspell. He had a good sized hand. I was holding some useless cards and Jade Leech, which clearly wasn't going to win the game if we started trading cards. Luckily, I had Rishadan Port on the table, so if he cast Wrath of God I would get to force the Jade Leech onto the table. If he cast Story Circle instead, he would be able to keep one white mana untapped for my turn and then in future turns he would have enough to stop both Blastoderm and Jade Leech without trouble. I'd have no hand and would probably be toast. The counters didn't matter, because if he survived I was dead anyway.
So the trick was getting him to choose the Wrath over the Story Circle without giving away that I wanted him to take the Wrath. One secret is that most people who use Fact or Fiction overvalue Fact or Fiction, because they don't play against players who know how to divide the piles properly often enough. So if Fact or Fiction is one of the five cards, it can be used to make one pile appear better than it is. That's what I decided to do: Put the Fact or Fiction with the Wrath of God. That looked to him like a better pile than getting Absorb and Counterspell, but it also looked like I was attempting to keep the division "fair." Because of that, he took the wrong pile, Jade Leech hit the table and he couldn't find another Wrath in time.
The problem is that Blinding Angel or the other answers can just win the game, since playing additional threats won't help. A Blinding Angel will shut out the entire deck, and replying with a threat other than Two-Headed Dragon doesn't matter. If the Angel can be protected the game is over. The change in philosophy is that now Fires is on a serious clock. At some point, and that point may be turn five, Blinding Angel comes down and the Fires deck is crippled. Playing out all the threats in hand is still not a good idea, but things do have to be rushed when they can be.
On to sideboarding. Against W/U, Reverent Silence has to come in, as do the other two Kavu Chameleons and Obliterate. That means taking out five cards. Three of those cards are Assault and Battery, because they're a very inefficient creature. The last two may come as somewhat of a surprise, because the deck sideboards out two Blastoderms. Blastoderm does actually have a serious 'take 15' problem against W/U even more than other control decks, because of Absorb. That makes it a worse card than Jade Leech, together with issues with Reverent Silence (gain 6?) and Story Circle and Teferi's Moat. The game plays differently after sideboarding to some extent, and to that extent the Fires side is generally better off. Story Circle is no longer permanent, Kavu Chameleon goes through both that and Teferi's Moat and can't be countered. Even if U/W gets out of the opening, Kavu Chameleon can still force him to produce Wrath of God in a hurry. Finally, about one game in three there will be time to draw into the ace in the hole, Obliterate. A proper hand for recovery will smash any hand the U/W deck can have, even if they're protected by enchantments.
Against Nether-Go, the key differences are that Nether Spirit can make Fires have multiple threats to get through and the lack of Wrath of God makes piling onto the table a good thing in game one. That means it's best to throw caution to the wind and cast everything under the sun. More than any other deck, they don't have the counterspell - the reason is they have to use them on even more spells so they run out faster. Sideboarding is easy, since Assault and Battery once again goes out but Reverent Silence doesn't come in. Leave the Blastoderms and everything is good to go; the only question is whether the opponent is likely enough to commit a second creature and make Obliterate worthwhile. Eye-Go is a similar situation to Nether-Go. Instead of Nether Spirit there are Evil Eyes to worry about. Here Assault is actually good quite often, but it still doesn't make the cut of the deck because Obliterate and Kavu Chameleon are once again amazing and everything else in the deck is simply better. These are incredibly easy matchups, because the U/B mage has to deal with a ton of questions any one of which ends the game if the answer is wrong.
The key problem card after sideboarding is green's arch nemesis, good old Perish. Because of Perish, play again becomes slightly conservative. Instead of playing everything, no more than one big Perish target should be in play at any one time unless something strange is going on. Kavu Chameleon lets the attack go on without trouble here. Against black decks, generally it's best to save one mana to make the Chameleon black against removal but it costs too much time to wait for more than that.
The last case is monoblue control; blue skies and Rising Waters are totally different situations. Here there's no risk in playing everything out at once, and only the three cards need to be sideboarded. The problems are weird cards like Glacial Wall and Washout. When possible, try to play different colors of threats. The opponent is playing monoblue for a reason, whatever that reason is, so watch out for obscure counters like Desertion and obscure answers like Teferi's Response or even Overburden. It's a weird world out there. Sometimes these decks will have black for Tsabo's Decree and Perish only, at which point they can be treated as Eye-Go without the Eyes.