Monday, December 13, 2010

Your Standard Ponza Scheme

For all of you readers who are going to be dissapointed, no, this isn't a discussion of Multi-level marketing strategies (although...), this is going to be a discussion of my experiences with a Magic deck this past Friday, which happened to be in the Ponza archetype, in the Standard Format.

"Ponza" is a Red Deck Wins or Sligh deck hybridized with a land destruction deck. The intention is to keep your opponent off their land and therefor their game plan long enough to kill them with your red deck. It trades speed in the form of cheaper spells for disruption. Here's the list that I played:

4 Lightning Bolt
4 Flame Slash
4 Arc Trail
4 Pyroclasm
4 Melt Terrain
4 Demolish
4 Roiling Terrain
3 Koth of the Hammertime
3 Molten Phoenix
2 Wurmcoil Engine
22 Mountain
2 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

No sideboard. I attempted to put one together between round one and two out of the commons box; some sort of dream of a transformational sideboard into a more standard Red Deck Wins. Didn't play with it.

Actually, the deck didn't have the full number of Phoenix; it was running two Auriok Replicas as proxies. Throughout the tournament I ran them as gray ogres rather than the phoenixen they're supposed to represent. And it wasn't my deck. My deck was sitting on my kitchen table an hour away. This was a rough draft deck kindly lent to me by the store owner. So here's how I did with it.

Round one: Elves
Ready... Fight!

I win the die roll. I play a mountain, pass. He plays a forest, into Llanowar Elves. I think for a moment and bolt the elves. At this point I assume he's playing a ramp deck, in which case I want to be able to slow his ramp down while I still have a chance. He plays turn two Fauna Shaman. I can't deal with Fauna Shaman despite the answers in my deck. He puts a couple vengevine in his graveyard, I melt a couple lands and he swarms me.

Game two he gets down a turn zero Leyline of Vitality, which doesn't help me at all. I mean, the half dozen life points didn't trump my game plan, but it certainly didn't help me possibly kill him while I was keeping him low on mana. Inasmuch as I can against an elf deck anyway. He gets out a Nissa Revane, I have trouble killing Nissa's Chosen at 4 toughness, and I move on to round two.

Round Two: Metalcraft Goblins
Ready... Fight!

Game one he gets Quest for the Goblin Lord, Quest for the Goblin lord, Memnite into Kuthoda rebirth. Three counters on the quests, and I burn out his goblins. He has more goblins and suddenly I'm facing an army that's all +4+0, which I can't handle. Game two he only gets down one quest, but it plays out much the same.

These games were over quickly, so we played roughly eight more waiting for the round to end. I won two. The game really revolves around managing the swarm of goblins. If he got down an early quest, he had a lot of inevitability. If I held my pyroclasms in reserve, getting as much card advantage out of them as possible I could get a Koth down and kill him with it. This didn't happen as often as I would like. Moving on to round 3

Round 3: Elves
Ready... Fight!

I did better in this round; more experience with the deck meant I was using my pyroclasms and arc trails more effectively, and his deck wasn't expensive enough to include the Vengevines. I took down one game; he got me down to 5, but I got out a Wurmcoil Engine, which got me up to about 27 before I finished him off.

Game three was fun. I was getting beaten down; he got out Nissa Revane, I bolt it right away. He gets out another one, and I can't kill it. So I'm sort of screwed. With no board presence, at six life facing down a lethal amount of creatures I start to scoop and he says "I'm not going to kill you just yet", so I carefully separate out my hand, graveyard and land, and keep playing. He gets Nissa up to seven counters, uses the ultimate. He then proceeds to attack me with his army. He's got 21 elves, four Elvish Archdruids tapping, and channelling the mana through an Ezuri, Renegade Leader, who can overrun with every five mana. After quite a bit of arithmetic, he hit me for 960 damage.

Yeah, it was pretty awesome. Even though, if you're counting, I'm 0-3 in matches and 1-6 in games.

Round Four: White Metalcraft
Ready... Fight!

In game one he gets down some quick creatures and I start to melt his lands. I deal with most of them, but one of his memnites gets in for nine damage, before I finally hit it with a pyroclasm. I get down one of my finishers, and win from there.

Game two goes much the same, except he gets a late game Kor Firewalker which I'm unable to deal with. He wins off of his two damage.

Game three he gets down a turn two and a turn three Kor Firewalker. I trade a Auriok Replica with one of them while the other goes to town on my lifetotal and buffers his. I get another Replica when I'm on seven life and he stops attacking. He's trying to build up lands and I'm trying to melt them. I get my singleton actual phoenix into play and start hitting back with that. Also, Valakut goes active and I start tossing mountain bolts around. A testament to my play skill, I forget that Valakut is actually a colorless source of damage and could have killed his firewalker.

He gets out two Tempered Steel, I'm slowly whittling him down from about 30, He's desperately trying to find land. He finally gets his fifth, a plains, slams it down and activates his Dread Statuary. He swings it in as an eight six, and I'm on the point of conceding before I realize I can chump with my replica. I get him on the next turn.

Whoo! I finally took a match.

Partly I won that round because he mis sideboarded; he brought in four celestial purge despite the fact that my deck had exactly four targets for them (3 Koth, 1 Phoenix.) And he didn't think to sideboard out his Wurmcoil Engines and Eldrazi Monuments despite his difficulties at hitting five and six mana. Another lesson at not sticking to a mechanical sideboarding plan.

So how did the deck play? Poorly. In a large part this was due to the matchups; elf decks are bad news for any land destruction plan, and goblins aren't much better. Even the white metalcraft deck would have had a pretty good matchup if he had sideboarded better. The deck doesn't have many things that'll bring it back from behind; a pyroclasm, a timely Phoenix death or a Wurmcoil engine. Koth is a great win condition, but there were times when I used him as a fog effect, the best I could get out of him.

Oh yeah, and then there's the mana curve. Didja notice it? Let me spell it out for you:

1: 8
2: 8
3: 0
4: 15
5: 3
6: 2

Could use more threes, less fours. Stone Rain, where are you?

In general, there are a lot of decks that can get a decent part of their plan off in turns one through three, and the land destruction doesn't start until four. To a decent extent you can counter this by just burning out their early creatures, but then you're running up against the cards in hand limit. Your classic ramp deck needs some ramp stuff and some stuff to ramp into, if you get too much of either you lose because you don't have the other. The system here is analogous; you get too much melt terrain or too much flame slash you'll lose, because you won't be able to stop their game plan with just one or the other.

Oh yeah, about Flame slash. You notice something about the burn? Flame Slash and Pryoclasm, while being excellent cards for what they do, don't go to the face. Eight of the land destruction spells also deal incidental damage to the player, but it doesn't add up to much. Imagine you hit them with two melt terrain and two Roiling terrain. You get them down to nine, which isn't really within range bolt and arc trail as your burn. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it sets you up in the role of pure control rather than an aggro-control damage + disruption scheme like your classic Ponza deck. You're also pushed that way since you've got very few creatures that respond to traditional removal spells, sticking more cards in their hand. Again, being a control deck isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it sets you in a bad metagame position with respect to aggro decks, like elves or goblins.

So how would I fix it? With lots and lots of rambling, apparently.

Well, let's take a look at that mana curve. We need stuff in the three slot, or at least to bypass it. The first card that comes to my mind is Staggershock. It helps you fight off elf and goblin swarms, can be directed at the face if necessary, and fits nicely in at three mana. There aren't any land destruction spells at that cost, so our options are mostly to shore up the burn.

If we're looking to ramp, we've got a couple possibilities. Everflowing Chalice usually kicked at 1, Iron Myr or even Spawning breath, which would be a great card if the number of 1/1s I saw is consistent with the metagame. Iron Myr would make pyroclasm a much worse card; Spawning breath much less; you can either sac the spawn token or use it to chump block with very few regrets.

You could also ramp with Pilgrim's eye, which isn't a dead draw if you're running Valakut, or alternately scrap the valakut plan and run some Tectonic Edge as backup land destruction.

And while I'm talking land destruction, what land destruction spells to run? Out of the options given, Demolish seems the weakest since it doesn't deal any damage, but on the other hand sometimes you really need to hit an artifact, especially considering Mirrodin is back. At one point the White Metalcraft deck pulled a Sword of Body and Mind on me. I felt lucky to be able to demolish it. Goblin Ruinblaster is probably better than any of the listed options, assuming you've got some, which wasn't the case with this deck.

Talking about the ramp targets, well, I was underwhelmed by the Phoenix. It doesn't get me back from behind, seeing as I don't have a real good way to wipe the board with it, short of taking an alpha strike to the face. The Wurmcoil engine, on the other hand, provides a significant board presence, and I wouldn't mind keeping it in if it was easier to cast. It's hard to get to six mana if the only way you're doing it is drawing blind. Ramping is fine, drawing cards enough to get the mana is fine, but just waiting for your deck to produce means you're waiting a long time.

Hmm... Crystal Ball? I'm inclined to say no. If you hit it on turn three you don't get to use it on turn four because you'd rather be blowing up someone's land. And then it never actually draws you cards, it just filters them. I've never been a fan of the card that others have, so maybe I'm biased.

So let's get down to the metaphorical brass tacks. How would I rebuild the deck? Well, let's say I'm sticking with mono red. I can either move more to the traditional Ponza route or the control route. If I go Ponza I want to take out the higher mana cost things and put in more ways to damage the opponent:

4 Goblin Guide
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Arc Trail
4 Ember Hauler
4 Staggershock
1 Cunning Sparkmage
4 Goblin Ruinblaster
4 Melt Terrain
4 Roiling Terrain
3 Koth of the Hammertime
2 Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle
22 Mountain

Hmm... Maybe putting Goblin Guide in a deck with 12 land destruction spells is a bit greedy. On the other hand, I do love goblin guide. Ember hauler works as a 2/2 for 2 that also can occasionally add a little damage to the face or take care of a problem creature. Cunning Sparkmage likewise, in the three drop slot. Maybe some Lust for War would be good there too.

Now if I were to make it more of a control deck...

4 Flame Slash
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Everflowing Chalice
4 Iron Myr
4 Pilgrim's Eye
4 Staggershock
3 Koth of the Hammer
4 Demolish
4 Chain Reaction
1 Comet Storm
2 Valakut
22 Mountain

This one preserves the creatureless deck advantage, to an extend. Oh noes! He doom bladed my pilgrim's eye. You've still got the excellent creature kill, but now you can ramp more easily into your more awesome stuff. I especially like Iron Myr into Chain Reaction; it lets you make sure the kill all creatures effect is larger, so you're not wasting your card investment. The one of comet storm also gives you an out for killing everything or using it to toss at people's faces. Pilgrim's eye makes sure you're drawing your land cards for your Valakut kill while also providing a chump blocker. This deck uses demolish as an answer to problem cards rather than as a strategy.

I'm not saying either deck would be perfect, but they'd make a decent second draft. That's what I'd put in and why.


  1. Woo hoo! Thanks for your thoughts Hank!

    I actually did already rebuild it into a control deck. I like the idea of Ponza, but unless you make it R/G Ponza (and you definitely need the Lotus Cobras to ramp into those 4cc LD spells) there seems to be little point.

    The 2nd draft is now:
    4x Lightning Bolt
    4x Flame Slash
    4x Arc Trail
    4x Spawning Breath
    3x Comet Storm
    4x Cunning Sparkmage
    2x Staggershock
    2x Act of Treason
    3x Koth of the Hammer
    2x Magma Phoenix
    4x Wurmcoil Engine

    Honestly though, I don't see much hope for this deck deck in anything but a small town metagame. Here in Ashland you still have to see a couple of Valukut and B/W Control every week, which this deck won't handle, but it'll easily take the aggro builds like Elves, Vampires, and White Weenie.

  2. Of all my projects I love the doomed ones the most.