Power to the Punishing Fire

Concerning:

Punishing Fire ∙ Grove of the Burnwillows ∙ Brian Kibler ∙
Cursed Scroll ∙ Ben Rubin ∙ … And Punishing Fire

I am really supposed to be working on this week’s Top Decks right now, which includes some Extended analysis as we approach the 2009 World Championships… But that led me to some personal Extended exploration that I thought I would share with my faithful blog readers.

Of course, like any fan of the game, I went bananas over the Ben Rubin / Brian Kibler Punishing Fire “Zoo” deck that won Pro Tour Austin. Just a great deck, and the bazillionth implementation of the collaboration of that wing of the Underground that has produced, well, the Sickest Ever deck of all time, among others. Their Naya-based Punishing Fire Zoo deck was of course reminiscent of Tomoharu Saito’s exciting finish to last year’s Extended Grand Prix tournaments, but involving bigger thinking.

I often write about how the best deck designers are so successful by killing their darlings… You know, how Dan Paskins went Shrapnel Blast in his straight Red Goblin deck, or how the patron saint of Red Decks, Tsuyoshi Fujita, cut Goblin Piledriver for Goblin Goon… Really not-obvious stuff that distinguishes the designer, differentiates him from the mean, and proves how much more effective his design is than the default.

For Reference: Rubin Zoo

4 Knight of the Reliquary
2 Lightning Helix
3 Qasali Pridemage

3 Noble Hierarch
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Punishing Fire

3 Baneslayer Angel
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
4 Path to Exile

4 Arid Mesa
1 Forest
1 Ghost Quarter
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
2 Marsh Flats
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Sacred Foundry
2 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
2 Treetop Village

sb:
4 Meddling Mage
3 Ancient Grudge
3 Blood Moon
1 Kataki, War’s Wage
3 Ghost Quarter
1 Hallowed Fountain

In this case the big thinking looks to be the interaction between Punishing Fire and Grove of the Burnwillows.

Punishing Fire
Punishing Fire

Grove of the Burnwillows
Grove of the Burnwillows

This two card combination is strong on its face; it is essentially a one damage net for three mana, and inexorable over a long game. You can give the opponent a life per turn but wipe away his ways to win (for example, your opponent is playing Faeries and has nothing bigger than a 3/1)… You can’t really be stopped over a long game without graveyard removal

Go back and read what I wrote. Not “is” but “looks to be” … Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows is among the most powerful effects in the Rubin Zoo deck, but I feel like the really big innovation was the inclusion of Baneslayer Angel in the strategy. It might not seem brave… But playing a five drop in a Zoo deck is anything but obvious for Extended. After all, this is a format where some players went Steppe Lynx and many thought Woolly Thoctar too expensive to play!

This post is really about Punishing Fire, though, not the Baneslayer Angel end of the Rubin Zoo deck.

I was watching The Magic Show, and Brian said something that really hooked me. The Punishing Fire combination is compelling on its face, sure, but the DragonMaster created an analogy to Cursed Scroll that got the wheels turning.


Cursed Scroll is a card that I have won many tournaments with (though primarily in Black)… I was a huge proponent of Red Decks for Extended a few years back… So this opportunity seemed like a decent window to revisit the strategy.

To be fair Red never really went away. We have just exchanged it for The Lightning Bolt Deck in recent years. The mighty Saito himself played a version of the Lightning Bolt deck, albeit featuring Goblin Guide over Spark Elemental. I am suspicious of a Goblin Guide in general, but it seems particularly out of place in an Extended Red deck. The advantage of the Lightning Bolt Deck over Naya Burn, Naya Zoo, or Rubin Zoo (if the Lightning Bolt Deck can be said to have one) is its ability to ignore creature removal. All of the creatures come with an expriration date (Spark Elemental, Keldon Marauders), or can evaporate at will (Mogg Fanatic); this really makes Threads of Disloyalty or in particular Path to Exile much less attractive to play. So in short, I like Goblin Guide even less than usual in the Extended Lightning Bolt Deck.

My initial design came much more closely to an update to the traditional Red Deck Wins model, while still owing allegiance to the Lightning Bolt Deck:

Punishing Fire RDW v.1.0

2 Pithing Needle

2 Elemental Appeal
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Magma Jet
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Punishing Fire
4 Rift Bolt
4 Shrapnel Blast

2 Arid Mesa
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Great Furnace
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
6 Mountain
3 Scalding Tarn
1 Stomping Ground

sb:
1 Pithing Needle
2 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Ravenous Trap
4 Ancient Grudge
2 Lash Out
3 Threaten

Somewhat surprisingly, this deck has more than held its own in Extended practice. I’ve actually had more problems with Standard-legal cards like Bloodbraid Elf (card advantage) and Knight of the Reliquary (sheer size) than the fast and powerful Extended strategies.

I haven’t lost to any Dredge-oriented decks yet (though one embarassing match I got my opponent to 1 in Game One right before being locked out by the Shield of Emeria); I won Game Three with a well-placed Threaten on a Dark Depths token (apparently he was hybridizing or sideboarding Vampire Hexmage… I smoked him with my sideboard graveyard removal in Game Two).

The most rewarding matchup was against a Cascade-Restore Balance deck. I won 2-1, stealing the first and winning the third outright. In the first I was dead in two to a Phyrexian Totem (he had played two if not three copies of Restore Balance in the first)… then I topdecked Pithing Needle to buy me the three turns I needed to play Rift Bolt and Shrapnel Blast (thanks for all the help, Pithing Needle!). In the third I just played to empty my hand, which made Restore Balance much less fun for him. Burn seems very good against that strategy.

Elemental Appeal was of course my Firecat, but it is a bit awkward with Blinkmoth Nexus… I decided my sacrifice lands weren’t doing enough as I wasn’t playing with Plated Geopede, and I could either run Ancient Grudge just off of Grove of the Burnwillows or not at all. Threaten was looking more and more attractive main deck, anyway.

Here is my second version:

Punishing Fire RDW v.1.1

2 Pithing Needle

4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Keldon Marauders
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Magma Jet
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Punishing Fire
4 Rift Bolt
4 Shrapnel Blast
2 Threaten

4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Great Furnace
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
12 Snow-covered Mountain

sb:
1 Pithing Needle
2 Tormod’s Crypt
3 Ravenous Trap
4 Ancient Grudge *
4 Lash Out
1 Threaten

* Provisional… Could be a Shattering Spree or some other awesome card, like Isochron Scepter.

I was very surprised at how effecrive these decks have proved so far.

The question, really, is whether they are worth exploring since we know we can just play Rubin Zoo, which has not just the most powerful combination in this deck, but also a top end that includes Baneslayer Angel (and a bottom of the curve that includes Tarmogoyf). I talked to Ben the week after the Pro Tour, and he pointed out that unlike many other Extended formats, in the current one, his Zoo deck is actually composed of many of the most powerful cards! … That is a hard argument for a knowledgeable Magician to argue away.

That said, the combo-like double Shrapnel Blast draw might be enough to make this a viable option. We’ll just have to wait and see… and draw burn spells.

LOVE
MIKE

Currently Reading: The Essential Calvin and Hobbes

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6 comments ↓

#1 thepedestrian on 11.17.09 at 10:45 am

I am of the opinion that blood moon is the sole reason that Kibler won the Pro Tour. It was his X-factor. It stopped decks cold and in the top 8 made his opponents play around in sideboarded games even though he didnt side it in. An early blood moon gives the Bolt deck enough time to draw enough cards to beat the opponent.

Also why are you playing threaten when mark of mutiny is a strick upgrade?

#2 mbowen on 11.17.09 at 11:07 am

The question, really, is whether they are worth exploring since we know we can just play Rubin Zoo,

It’s worth exploring because there is no viable budget deck in Extended right now and RDW is about as close to budget as you can get these days. Even though Groves have gone up in value a bit, they’re still pretty cheap. The maindeck Pithing Needles are really the only expensive cards in the deck and they are cheap compared to ‘goyfs and Baneslayers.

#3 mbowen on 11.17.09 at 11:09 am

Excuse the double post… I just double checked the prices on Pithing Needle and the M2010 version is dirt cheap for some reason. Hard to imagine Pithing Needle as a budget card but indeed it is.

#4 bigheadjoe on 11.19.09 at 1:34 pm

Hi,

I haven’t explored the idea too seriously other than daydreaming about it, and the library computer says “10 Mins Left” in the upper right-hand corner so I don’t have much time to elaborate right now. Let me get straight to the point. Why isn’t anyone going all the way and abusing both Needlebite Trap AND Punishing Fire in an Extended deck running Grove of the Burnwillows? Dare I say that Jund should make the jump to Extended? Is there any good reason to NOT abuse both cards? Hope you have been enjoying YO! MtG TAPS!

BHJ

#5 Alfrebaut on 11.19.09 at 3:09 pm

@thepedestrian: I’ve played “the lighting bolt deck” perpetually in extended for a while, even when it hasn’t been Extended season, and while there is often room for 3-mana spells, like Sulfurous Vortex and sometimes Flames of the Blood Hand, I don’t think Blood Moon can really come out early enough, or even consistently enough, in this deck, to make that big a difference. It might be a decent out against combo if the deck played acceleration, but it simply can’t afford to. Even Molten Rain, which I have in my sideboard, which not only disrupts, but deals 2 damage, often seems too slow.

Also, Mike… have you tried Smash to Smithereens?

#6 Alfrebaut on 11.20.09 at 5:57 pm

@bigheadjoe: I hadn’t thought of Needlebite Trap, but I do have a prototype of a Kavu Predator/Fiery Justice Punishing/Grove deck which I built when I first heard of Punishing Fire, and the mana in Extended is pretty ridiculous, so it’s entirely possible. Earlier versions had jank like Roar of Jukai in it, so I guess it’d still be best to experiment.

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