My Fires - Part 5
Now that the card-by-card analysis is finished, it's time to move on to matchup analysis. A lot has already been said about just about every matchup in reference to that matchup's key cards, but a lot is still unsaid. More than anything else, what's still missing is what the overall feel of each one should be.
Fires of Yavimaya Mirror Match:
A lot depends on the exact configuration of the opposing deck, but even facing the full Red Zone treatment is similar enough all the options can be handled together. The Fires mirror is one of the good mirrors, because which cards or assets are important changes wildly from game to game and even turn to turn. Often, one player will get the chance to shut the other out of a game entirely with a better opening draw, but a lot of games come down to either the tricks of the trade or deck design. The game goes through phases, the first of which is a struggle to get mana onto the table.
Early on, mana is by far the most important asset. The last thing to be worried about is 'wasting' Assault and Battery or other removal on mana creatures, or for those who insist on playing them trading River Boa for a mana creature. The mana is all that matters. One easy decision to note is that if the deck has a choice between playing a mana creature or killing one with Assault on turn one or two, it virtually always wants to use Assault first and cast its dudes later. The reason for this is that letting them have three mana allows them to play a Fires or an Idol on a turn where they would otherwise be restricted to River Boa or a new mana creature, which are much less scary, or Porting which won't matter since the plan was to cast the creature next turn anyway. The other concern is even bigger against decks with different burn, which is that they will use the Bird or Elf to cast Rhystic Lightning or Urza's Rage (or even Ghitu Fire) to kill the Elf or Bird, which would be a very bad tempo loss.
The same concerns come up when deciding whether to use Rishadan Port. Every point of mana can be huge. The biggest gap is denying the opponent his third mana. If that costs him the chance to cast Fires, then it costs a full turn. Even if River Boa is cast instead, it costs most of one. The jump from three mana to four mana is just as important once it is likely the opponent is out of three drops. It may seem silly to bypass the ability to cast a Chimeric Idol just to use a Rishadan Port, but if the opponent just laid down his third mana and said 'go' that's generally the right move with a threat light hand. The threat light hand part is critical. Often, one player (or both) will have a choice between casting spells and using Rishadan Port or Dust Bowl. That depends on what would happen if both hands were played onto the table. A player who has a shortage of high casting cost spells pretty much has to run a holding action until his hand improves. The ultimate example would be a choice between casting a 5/5 and Porting twice against three lands. Casting the Jade Leech or Blastoderm only makes sense if there is backup. Otherwise, unleashing both hands will only hurt. The less good cards are in the opponent's deck, the less troublesome this is but the more reliable waiting becomes.
Have faith in the deck, and your faith will be rewarded.
That's almost the key to the philosophy of the mirror matchup. With Two-Headed Dragon in the deck and a high number of the real threats, against other versions with less late game, it suffices to stall. Have faith in the deck, and it will be rewarded. Rush to see which player drew better and the result could go either way. Beyond inevitability, which is always great, the most important long run issue is making maximum use out of Blastoderm and Saproling Burst. Both are excellent cards, but both have the potential to go to waste if cast at the wrong time. Maneuvering into situations where the opponent's copies are winding down without having an effect is often the key to winning the match. Especially with Saproling Burst, often these situations would simply degenerate without those fading creatures on the table. As long as something is winding down, the mission is being accomplished. The best is when the Burst or Blastoderm goes to waste entirely, because neither player could attack with it off the table and neither can attack with it on the table. For example, if both players have Saproling Burst and one plays a Blastoderm, that Blastoderm just went to waste; it won't change the dynamic of the situation. Bursts often simply have to be waited out. The other issue with when Burst should come into play is that Burst should generally come down last unless there is a reason; this is even truer here than in other matchups. Burst is risky, since some versions will have removal and it fades away, and Burst has more potential because it interacts with Fires of Yavimaya. Every turn Burst can sit in hand is one more turn to draw Fires.
The most important time when Burst comes down early is against an opposing Fires. Fires hitting the table instantly changes the game dynamic. The player without Fires (or both players if both have Fires) must now defend against the threat of 'The Fix,' or Saproling Burst coming out with Fires on the table. That means that Burst must come down if the opponent will have the chance to get to five mana on the next turn. Without a defensive Burst, it's often impossible to survive a Burst. In these cases, a choice has to be made whether to try and stop one from being cast or not. Sometimes the best play is putting maximum pressure on the opponent to keep them from playing a Burst offensively. At other times, it's better to try and prevent them from getting to five mana until a defensive Burst can be found. Burst is a fragile but powerful weapon without Fires; with Fires it becomes insane.
Against close versions of 'The Red Zone,' Brian Kibler's deck and similar variants, there is no fear of Saproling Burst or Fires of Yavimaya because they aren't there. That allows much more aggressive play. Armageddon also forces more aggressive play. With four slots devoted to Armageddon, a painful mana base and less powerful spells, the first game is favorable. The main route The Red Zone will have to victory besides simply outdrawing is to get a chance to use Armageddon. Every turn, think about whether this play would allow Armageddon. Chimeric Idol often gets played before Fires of Yavimaya for this reason, although this is simply wrong in the normal mirror most of the time. Remember to play around Armageddon in this way and by holding unneeded lands, and things should go fine in the first game.
Sideboarding is difficult, because there are no cards that 'want' to come out of the deck after the two Kavu Chameleons. Even those aren't bad in the first game, but clearly they are inferior to the other cards in the deck. Some people think Assault wants to come out because of Simoon but that's not the case; there are eight mana creatures and probably River Boas on the other side and the deck can use every cheap removal spell for them it can get. No lands want to come out, even before considering opposing Rishadan Port and red removal. Against a theoretical overload of Aura Mutation and Wax and Wane, it would be a theoretical consideration to take out Saproling Burst and Fires of Yavimaya, which is done in some other matchups, but the cards are simply too good in the mirror to worry about a few removal spells. It's better to fight through them. The only time that would even be worth thinking about would be a full 'Red Zone' strategy backed by much more removal than Kibler played. If the opponent has Bursts to sacrifice to Aura Mutation, fight the good fight. But clearly the deck wants to put in four copies of Simoon. Something is going to have to go.
At this point, many cards in the deck have to be looked at. Chimeric Idol is the least powerful creature in the deck, and normally one will get pulled; sometimes two will get pulled. They also interfere with Rishadan Port, which gets put to more use than would be expected. With Simoon in the deck, the mana curve doesn't need all eight three drops to remain stable. The problem is when still facing Armageddon, because Chimeric Idol helps defend against being put in Armageddon friendly situations. Two-Headed Dragon is great in the mirror as well, but sometimes one does get sideboarded out. That happens against decks running cards like Tangle Wire or Stone Rain, keeping in Armageddon or that otherwise make the match more about survival than about winning in the long run. If there's no need for the trump card, don't risk all three copies. Every other option is even worse than those two, and that's why there are no other cards for the mirror in the sideboard.
With this new configuration, there are four fewer creatures in the deck, which should still be more than the opponent more often than not, but is now far from certain. The key now is going to be fighting over mana even more than before. Fires decks need at least four mana to operate properly, sometimes more, and when Simoon and Assault are combined it's unlikely the opponent will be able to keep mana creatures on the table very often. At that point, Rishadan Port and Dust Bowl can often come in to lock the opponent out of the game. If the opponent is 'cheating' on the land ratio he may not even need assistance. This is an alternative plan to the usual strategies, which are all still functional as well.
The other issue is how to react to those decks bringing in four copies of Armadillo Cloak, normally with the intention of putting it on Rith. As with most great sideboard cards, a decision every game must be made whether it can be won if that card shows up. The best answer to Cloak is to use mana control to keep it off the table, or at least keep its best target (Rith) from being cast. A Cloaked Leech is no picnic, but it can be blocked. Without a Two-Headed Dragon, Rith cloaks up and the game is pretty much over. In similar fashion, the entire match must be played as aggressively as possible after sideboarding, the same way a bad version of Fires should play against a copy of Chevy Fires. If the mana control plan fails, go for the throat. Waiting around simply won't work.
As a side matchup, there are W/G decks. They performed extremely poorly at the Pro Tour, and I think (as I did in testing) that the decks are poor. Their main strength is the Fires matchup, where they have an edge. Parallax Wave is harsh, they get to play four Wax and Wane and sideboard Aura Mutation. The good news is that like other green decks it's virtually impossible for W/G decks to have as much raw power as a Chevy Fires deck. Their mana base doesn't support it, they play River Boa and there are utility cards in the deck taking up too much space. As with Fires decks, attack the opposing mana base whenever possible both before and after sideboarding. It's normally even worse than the Fires decks that are pushing the envelope. Victory is still eventually going to the Fires deck if only because of a Dragon, but Parallax Wave is waiting to ruin the day. Just like Armageddon is the threat to play around against The Red Zone and shouldn't be forgotten here either, Parallax Wave is the main worry when playing against W/G. Blastoderm is valuable because it can't be Waved out, so even more than usual it should be held in reserve if there are better things to do. If Saproling Burst can trade with a Parallax Wave, that's a victory. Assuming Aura Mutation is out of the picture game one, normally the first Parallax Wave will be annoying but not fatal, but the second or third one will finish the job. When Wave doesn't show up Fires should have a relatively easy time.
When sideboarding here, the big question is whether to 'transform,' and take all eight enchantments out of the deck. They are great cards in the matchup, as they almost always are, but if all they are going to do is run into Aura Mutation or Wax and Wane, they aren't worth it. The general rule is they get pulled facing six or more removal spells. The need to sideboard in additional cards in this matchup makes the trigger finger a little looser than it is elsewhere, but if the opponent starts to get confident enough to stop putting in all the removal things can reverse direction in a hurry if that doesn't go unnoticed. Since most enchantment removal currently being played in W/G can't take out Chimeric Idol it can stay. Four of the eight new slots become Simoon, and two become Reverent Silence to try and stop Parallax Wave with only a lot of damage. That leaves four more, since Chameleon still isn't a strong card. Flashfires is interesting but there aren't really enough Plains out there. Earthquake, however, is excellent, with not only River Boa to kill but Noble Panther as well. That leaves one more card to put in the deck, a result of the changes made to the deck after W/G was no longer a major concern. As a result, either one Flashfires or Kavu Chameleon has to stay in the deck, depending on whether this version plays a large or small number of Plains.