Interlude: That's Just Math, Right?
Pioneer Mono-Red: Missed Top 8. Lost to two decks (Mono-Blue Spirits and Green Devotion) that I also beat.
Pioneer Mono-Red (again): Top 4. Lost to a deck 0-2 that I had beaten 2-0 to lock First Seed.
Text from my friend and partner Roman Fusco, received upon predictable lost-in-Top 8-complaint:
When the return to "the Gathering" was announced I had bragged to Roman that if I cared about being qualified I would be qualified. He reminds me of this every time we speak. "Do you just not care, MichaelJ?" I skipped an Area qualifier because I was so frustrated they were going to make me play Alchemy; and still have more than 20 Play-in Points unspent in my Arena account. I assume I just forgot to play in another qualifier last month.
And Roman - long the apprentice - was the one with the Vegas Top 8 and now double RCQ wins. He is looking very hull-like.
I had just missed Top 8 into Top 4 the last two weekends... Linearly my next RCQ would be not Top 2 but a win. That's just math, right?
Three though, not two, makes the pattern.
I sure hope this is a linear model.
Interlude: Destiny of The Tinder Box
Like my hero and igniting instructor Patrick "basic Mountain" Sullivan, I have a "Red" box. My longtime broadcast partner Joey Pasco has a better name though: The Tinder Box.
Actually, this Red box - the physical box - is Black. It's a Black, double-sized deck box... But filled with mostly Red cards. Well, philosophically "Red" more than technically Red if you grok.
I won my first Modern PPTQ with a Burn deck about six years ago, in 2016:
At the time it was all the rage to play cards like Wild Nacatl in your Modern Burn deck; but - while I still splashed Green for Atarka's Command myself - I moved my paradigm largely to creatures that made the opponent's removal bad. And Wild Nacatl made their removal at least pretty relevant.
You might know I wrote The Philosophy of Fire way back in 2004. Yet, I was never really a Red mage back then. While that article proved influential, I didn't become interested in playing Red myself until cards like Searing Blood and Eidolon of the Great Revel were printed. I met my friend and future podcast partner Roman Fusco at a local game store in 2014, playing Searing Blood for the first time. There is even a podcast episode about it with Brian David-Marshall!
This article takes its name from the always quick-witted BDM in this classic podcast.
Weirdly, this first interaction did not prevent us from becoming friends.
After I placed in a few tournaments with Eidolon of the Great Revel (and his friend Goblin Guide) I did, in fact, find I liked to run these Red spells. I placed Top 4 in a Super IQ later that year with Monastery Swiftspear. The team was starting to come together.
It came together in The Tinder Box.
I started playing Mono-Red exclusively in Standard events. One of the most popular articles I've ever written here on CoolStuffInc is The Twenty-Six Things Everyone Gets Wrong About Mono-Red, from a time period where I was winning FNM every week with quad Experimental Frenzy.
I adopted Bump in the Night in Modern by the start of 2019, and for a time became obsessed with all one casting cost cards, whether in or Mono-Red.
Thus, mayhap surprisingly, actually Black cards were added to the ostensibly Red Tinder Box.
This Red box - double sized, remember! - is everything I can imagine playing in a Red Deck. Originally it was supposed to be a "Modern" deck box but somehow over time acquired cards like Goblin Chainwhirler, Lava Coil, and Roast. It was Standard All-Stars that made the leap to Modern, like Fry; but also a bunch of what would become Pioneer Staples... Every kind of Chandra that had seen play in the last few years. At least I didn't have to look long for my Rending Volleys last week.
At some point The Tinder Box had become too stuffed and I removed cards like Rix Maadi Reveler and Lightning Skelemental just to make room. Which was a quasi-tragedy. You see, while I had been into Bump in the Night myself back in 2019...
... I had somehow removed Bump in the Night and Blackcleave Cliffs from The Tinder Box. I have no idea where my Rakdos-flavored Staples are! In the eight months since I'd last played Modern, Eidolon of the Great Revel had somehow fallen out of starting sixties in favor of Bump in the Night. I scoured about six long boxes in addition to The Tinder Box itself and couldn't find any of the relevant Black support.
Some kind of otherworldly intervention to be sure. But to which god?
"Oh well," I said to myself. "Looks like it's just you and me old friend."
Interlude: The Most Powerful Card in Modern
Eidolon of the Great Revel and I have had quite the adventures together. And, as adventures go, some tragic.
I once called it the Most Powerful Card in Modern.
In 2015 I missed a trigger at Pro Tour Vancouver that very possibly cost me the first individual Top 8 of my career. Back then on Team Ultra Pro you had to do 10 push-ups for every missed Eidolon trigger. In 2015 I was so out of shape 10 poor-form, garbage-y, push-ups left me sore the next day; but as you can imagine, I'm sore to my soul, still over that missed trigger.
Who knew I would become a push-up GOAT by my mid-forties?
By the end of 2019 I had become so obsessed with one casting cost cards, though, I cut Eidolon from my decks entirely in favor of Lava Dart and Seal of Fire. I was just taking What Everybody Gets Wrong About Modern Burn to its farthest logical degree.
Eidolon was - is, let's be honest - flat-out bad a lot of the time. It's dicey in the mirror (except when it's "surprisingly good"); and you kind of have to side it out in a lot of creature matchups. If the opponent has Aether Vial you end up the only moron ever triggering it. It's the devil.
This is what I registered for the Modern RCQ in Queens, NY:
Will do the actual writeup later. Gambled on 19 lands and it paid off! pic.twitter.com/mAcc1b2mG0— Michael Flores (@fivewithflores) November 27, 2022
Burn | Modern | Michael Flores
- Lands (19)
- 2 Mountain
- 2 Sacred Foundry
- 3 Bloodstained Mire
- 4 Inspiring Vantage
- 4 Scalding Tarn
- 4 Sunbaked Canyon
There are two notable changes worth mentioning. First is in the mana base. As always, I played Bloodstained Mire and Scalding Tarn. I never, ever play Arid Mesa for reasons that I've discussed many times over the years. But I also cut the third basic Mountain for a solo Manamorphose. As I said, I haven't played Modern in eight months. I didn't feel like I had as exhaustive a grip on the format as I once did. Hence, I felt like I might need to get a little lucky on the day to counterbalance uninformed play. Gambling on 19 lands was how I planned to try to ride that luck; and anyway, Manamorphose was going to help me in my next decision.
No half measures. I had read recently that while it's not the most powerful, Burn is the "best" deck in Modern. I wanted a little edge in the mirror. Burn was actually about 25% of the tournament I played in, though I didn't get paired in the mirror at any point. Nevertheless, I would still recommend playing Kor Firewalker.
People play a lot of bad cards in Burn.
Skullcrack is the worst of them. Skullcrack is close to unplayable at this point but I still see two copies in so many deck lists. It's bad even in matchups where you want it. You need to thread the needle, leave mana open, and get lucky for it to be anything more than a Lightning Strike. Yet people don't even play four copies of Lightning Helix despite the obvious value to racing in the format.
The other really bad card is Sanctifier en-Vec. I think my lifetime record against Sanctifier en-Vec is undefeated, regardless of opposing archetype. People play it because it's kind of like half a Kor Firewalker, but they think of it as half a Rest in Peace also; and two-thirds of a White Knight? The thought process is they can cut Kor Firewalker, play Sanctifier, and get coverage in two other matchups. The problem is that Sanctifier isn't remotely good enough to win the mirror. Its is punishing on the mana, and it gets you next to nothing other than a good blocker.
The two areas where Sanctifier gets some more play are Death's Shadow and Underworld Breach. Playing a weird, underpowered, sideboard card for a matchup that you almost always win is odd to me. I can see its vigor against Grinding Station, where it can take just enough off of a Breach to foul the automatic nature of that combination... But you can get a lot of that action from Roiling Vortex; a card that can't be removed by Aether Spellbomb.
The Tournament: Five rounds of Swiss; cut to Top 8.
Round One: Merfolk
My opponent, Rudy, had been reading my stuff since 1996! We had a rollicking match.
He won the die roll and destroyed me in Game 1.
At the end of the first I had both my Mountains and both my Sacred Foundries in play; a Scalding Tarn off to the side, and two more fetches in my hand.
"I did this to myself," I thought.
But I was in my worst matchup and had lost drawing seven lands and only six spells. While I did technically "do this to myself," the whole point of shaving down to two Mountains and two Shocks was to not draw so many total lands!
In the old days against Merfolk my paradigm would have been to side out Eidolon and focus on controlling the board. But on the play, I decided Eidolon might be pretty good, so changed my sideboard strategy to leave in a little face-burn and focus on damage instead. Be the Beatdown, MichaelJ! Instead I cut Boros Charm and a couple of Lava Spikes for Searing Blood and Path to Exile.
In some matchups I would try to cut all my White spells (Merfolk is the poster child for being able to muck up a Boros Burn's mana); but I was committed to Path to Exile so stuck with White.
In Game 2 I landed first turn Monastery Swiftspear into Eidolon before Rudy had anything on the battlefield. I was pretty sure I had won at that point. He would likely only be able to one-spell each turn; take two; and play into a removal card and possible two-spell... every turn.
I liked those odds.
Game 3 I was so happy with Eidolon I decided to leave my old buddy in despite being on the draw. Miraculously Rudy didn't have a 1-drop! One burn spell later and we were in a re-run of Game 2, except he was stuck on two lands. Academic!
I had no illusions about how I had just won. Not only did I break serve, but I did so against my literal worst matchup. Luck, Manamorphose, and Eidolon were all with me today.
"Today is going to be a good day."
Rudy finished the Swiss as First Seed, by the way.
Round Two: Grinding Station Combo
I won the flip and just had all the tempo. The only interesting thing was leaving up a Lightning Bolt for a Ragavan dash on turn two. He tapped out for Grinding Station just in time to die. However, this did give me valuable information about how to sideboard.
- -4 Lava Spike
- -4 Boros Charm
- -2 Eidolon of the Great Revel
- +2 Path to Exile
- +4 Smash to Smithereens
- +4 Searing Blood
My paradigm here was twofold:
- Don't get hit by Ragavan
- Since I have no idea how the Grinding Station combo works, have artifact removal JIC
I did call over the judge to confirm the interaction with Roiling Vortex, but decided against it, being on the draw. See also point 1, above.
Game 2 was pretty fortunate for the good guys. I swung in with Goblin Guide, revealing Unholy Heat. So, I just refused to attack because my opponent, Juno, refused to Unholy Heat without another attack trigger. From my standpoint I was stealing mana while accumulating burn spells. I eventually got multiple Guides and none of them paid Juno, so - in part thanks to an Urza's Saga - he was short the one mana he needed to make it academic on the last turn of the game.
Down came Grinding Station.
I waited for Underworld Breach and responded with Smash to Smithereens. He had Spell Pierce... Which actually ensured he couldn't go off that turn with the Breach. He just didn't have the mana to keep going! Tight little 2-0 win, this.
Round Three: Izzet Murktide
Game 2 was super interesting, though. I kept this:
I cracked for three and opened on a Rift Bolt suspend; got hammered by a Ragavan dash for my troubles.
Over the course of the game, I'd be hit by various Ragavans three times and have to contend with two Regents.
Somehow, I survived to a mid-game at deuce. He had four cards and I had three, but we were both around 11 or 12. He was obviously way ahead on lands (something like six or seven) to my three or four, but I managed to pull three Sunbaked Canyons to keep filtering my hand. I liked my chances, though I did get caught by a Spell Pierce at one point. I could imagine my old teammate Brian Kowal in the back of my mind, shaking his head.
"The minimum," BK always told me, "is to get your burn spells to resolve against Blue."
On the last turn he swung in with a huge Murktide Regent and yet another Ragavan. "Please flip Lightning Helix," he begged... But it was just a land. Either Lava Spike or Lightning Bolt could resolve at that point. Both did. Whew.
Round 4: ID with Amulet Titan
Round 5: ID with Creativity Combo
Top 8: Death's Shadow
I knew from the two hours I had off, scouting the other twenty-odd players in the room, that my Top 8 opponent was going to be Death's Shadow. I was second seed overall, meaning I'd have the option to play until at least the Finals.
I couldn't have been more gleeful looking at this:
- 1 Inspiring Vantage
- 1 Sunbaked Canyon
- 1 Goblin Guide
- 2 Eidolon of the Great Revel
- 1 Lightning Helix
- 1 Lightning Bolt
Close to 100% win expectation.
I don't know what Shadow has to do to beat this draw on the play. There's almost nothing they can do but take... 20 damage. It's a disaster because if they try to play to minimize combat damage they'll be stuck under double Eidolon for at least one spell cycle. That's if they have multiple fast removal cards.
He conceded turn three.
Game 2 was just as quick. I drew five Eidolons in two games.
What I noticed was not just how unbeatable Eidolon was going to be in that first Game 1 opener... But that I would have had to mulligan if I had played Bump in the Night instead. That hand would have gone from a 100% win expectation hand to a six-card hand.
Thank God I had misplaced all the Rakdos cards from The Red Box. Hammer-banging glory to Theros Block. Eidolon and I were best buddies today.
Top 4: Amulet Titan
I haven't beaten Amulet Titan since 2019.
Then again, I didn't play any Modern tournaments for two years so it might not be as bad as all that.
There was actually a lot of prize money for the Top 4, and conveniently my opponent didn't care about the RCQ slot. I arranged (with the Judge's approved language wrangling of course) a favorable prize split through to the Finals.
The opposite bracket went the same way!
So, we would just be two mages, locking staves on the Planes of Dominia, completely shedding the hundreds of dollars we had already earned, playing for a foil Selfless Spirit... And the path to the Pro Tour. Magic at its purest and most menacing.
Top 2: Creativity Combo
Game 1 was a slaughter. Turn one Goblin Guide gave me all the information I needed. He was joined by his buddies Goblin Guide #2, Eidolon, and Eidolon #2. I never didn't have Lightning Bolt up to break up the combo.
Game 2 was also a slaughter. My draw was actually perfect! Goblin Guide into Eidolon again... With Searing Blood and Path to Exile as my backup spells. Unfortunately, he was on the play and ran out Teferi, Time Raveler after killing my poor 2/2s.
The most relevant part of this game was that Eidolon went down to Leyline Binding - which while only costing "one" mana - didn't trigger the extra two damage. I dumped my hand to put him to two life the turn Teferi came down, with Searing Blood and Path to Exile left in hand.
Turn five rolled around for a double Creativity. Two Archons! That meant I couldn't just sandbag a Path to rebuild; instead I was dead to the next attack.
Game 3 I was just lucky. Turn one Guide again. He stabilized. And while Guide got in five times, all it did was tell both of us that there was no land on top of my opponent's deck. He was stuck on two for... Too long.
Discard... Teferi again.
While I got him to essentially one life - with four cards in my hand - they were all Searing Bloods. I couldn't finish. Eventually, though, he bit instead of discarding again. Eventually I had my window. Eventually that last Lightning Bolt resolved.
My opponent, Evan, was a quality human being. He got unlucky enough in Game 3 I almost felt bad about winning. Almost. I shipped the $60 Selfless Spirit and wished him luck in the next one. Based on his poise, I assume he got the next one by the time you're reading this.
And that's how you win an RCQ with Modern Burn.
In the 90s we got a blue ENVELOPE ;) pic.twitter.com/04nmlmACXB— Michael Flores (@fivewithflores) November 27, 2022
The Top 8 Takeaways:
- I think if you're going to play Burn, my list is very good. To reiterate, I wouldn't even have been able to play Bump in the Night in games where I won by a landslide with Eidolon.
- I broke serve in Round One, in my worst matchup. I won the roll or had seeding play advantage every other round. I didn't have to actually play against my other worst matchup (Amulet Titan) despite being paired against it twice. Modern is extraordinarily draw dependent, matchup dependent, and probably the most luck dependent of all the tournament formats right now. I have spent my adult life trying to master - and help readers master - the strategic aspects of Magic: the Gathering; today I promise you, "try to get lucky" and "maximize your opportunities to get lucky" are essential to the Modern kit. I played to get a little lucky. Manamorphose got me the burn spell I needed to win off the top in Round Three, BTW. I got very very lucky on Goblin Guides and my opponent bricking on Guides in the Finals. To be extremely clear: I would recommend a little gambling. Shave a land and play to hit the jackpot. There is a lot of perfect play that just doesn't get paid because the opponent drew too many Ragavans or pulled a combo piece off the top, when seemingly dead on board.
- Kill Ragavan! Note how I constructed my sideboard to maximize the likelihood that Ragavan will die. I like to be able to sideboard in such a way that every card in my deck can either trade with or kill Ragavan. You know it's coming, and even a single hit is devastating when you yourself are playing cards like Lightning Helix. An un-kicked Searing Blaze kills Ragavan and still kind of pokes at The Bad Guy.
- I was paired against Summoner's Pact, Mox Amber, and Mishra's Bauble on the day. All these cards interact with Roiling Vortex. Keep that in the back of your mind (even though I chose not to side in Vortex against the Grinding Station combo)... Had it gone to three I might have re-thought my strategy.
- Burn is a passable combo deck if you're on the play. Being able to shift into the Control deck is a hedge against not being on the play in Game 3.
- People tend to overvalue the ability to make small tweaks to a perfectly good combo strategy, rather than the ability to land tournament-winning haymakers (see "Burn is a passable combo deck" above). Even though I never played the mirror, I did not regret playing Kor Firewalker. Really Sanctifier en-Vec is up there with Skullcrack as a card that seems like it should have text but is embarrassing in its shallowness of applicability. Kor Firewalker, on the other hand, is a ridiculous trump in the mirror, but also random matchups like Prowess or Wizards. While Modern is painfully luck-dependent, you can still use your sideboard to make the opponent's plan look sloppy.
- Teferi, Time Raveler is a really interesting card against Burn. It's actually quite bad in the abstract because the turn you play it, you will often die; or at least take 10+ damage. On the other hand, if my opponent in the Finals didn't have it, he would have lost Game 2 by a mile. This seems to me very dependent on play/draw. Had he been the higher seed in the Finals, I'm not sure I would have taken home the Blue
EnvelopePiece of Paper.
- The most potent advantage of the Burn mage is that everyone underestimates us. I can't tell you how many times I got bantered during shuffling about how my opponent had just beaten Burn or how they weren't scared of me or how they couldn't wait to show off some unbeatable Modern Horizons II card I would have to read. Has no one looked over Slow Playing the Beatdown? Every time your opponent says "I didn't think you would take that line" or "Burn players don't usually hold back there" or "What could you possibly have been waiting for" know that you made a life fulfilling decision with your Guides and especially Eidolons!