Thursday, August 2, 2012

Beat em or Join Em?: The Problem With Bonfire

Format Warping

There, I said it. I’ve played in quite a few tournaments since the release of Avacyn Restored, and one thing has started to become more and more clear over the last few days. Bonfire of the Damned is – and is going to - warp the format.

When Miracles first came out, many Magic writers took their fingers to keyboard and decided to write a bit about the issues with Miracle. What were they trying to do? What does the mechanic accomplish? Is the mechanic any good in reality?

Well, we have our answer. With the price of Bonfires reaching $35 at most online vendors and rising steadily, it looks like we’re going to be living in a world where Bonfire is the shadow looming large over the whole format. Whenever a player has Red in their deck, I cringe every time that their hand touches their deck for the draw. The primer for the Hallelujah deck that won the Pro Tour said it best – you need to play up your draws, make the opponent tilt every single time you touch your deck.

When I’ve got six 2/2 tokens in play, there are no safe top decks anymore if you have a mountain.

The word 'Boom' comes to mind.
I wasn’t sure how good it was myself. I kept playing BW Tokens, and I was shocked when my matchup against GR, which had previously been fairly close (if they didn’t blow me out with a Sword) was all of a sudden turned around by a crippling Bonfire at any stage of the game. I feel like you’d need to be playing 12 anthems to have a chance of ‘outrunning’ it. Naya, running Restoration Angel and Thalia, doesn’t even feel close. They just stone-wall me at every turn, keep me from casting anything of consequence, and crush me with a vastly superior creature base.

 I still didn’t believe it though. I kept playing events with BW Tokens, and every time someone cast Bonfire, I lost. It seemed normal though – it seemed fair. Lights didn’t go on in my head until my girlfriend and I were sorting through some Alara Block commons and uncommon (I’m working on the Shard Wars, and while she doesn’t play the game, she seems to really enjoy the art.) I was flipping through the Conflux section and I pulled out a card, instantly knowing the story behind it.

I'd be Bitterblossem if this was printed too.
“Oh hun, check this card out.”
“I like the movement in the picture. And the quote is pretty awesome too.”
“This card changed tournament magic. Remember that Faerie deck that I was telling you about?”
“This card single handedly turned the tide on it. Once this card was printed, Faeries wasn’t the bad guy of the format anymore. It was to tailor built to kill Faeries that they just couldn’t compete.”
“That’s evolution for you.”

And then I stopped. I remembered every time I saw Bonfire get a four for one, or a six for one. I remembered seeing a field of creatures – twice lethal damage – during testing on Tuesday. I peeled the Bonfire, set X = 5, and killed him that turn from 20. The game wasn’t close – and then he lost it.

Let's be honest though. Cards warp formats all the time. Snapcaster has turned Unsummon from an unplayable card into a format staple. Jace caused Hero of Bladehold to be an actively terrible creature. The Eldrazi have made mill nonviable in EDH without bending over backwards to do it. That doesn't mean that we should call for bans, or complain. That means that it's time to innovate and figure out a solution to the problem. We have two choices here - we can either join the Bonfire crew (as I have at the moment with Naya) or fight against it (as I'm trying to do.) 

When that can happen, and you need to account for a one sided wrath of god for 3-4 mana, it’s going to change a format pretty significantly. You need to be on one of two sides in this format – for it or against it.

For Bonfire:
There’s a whole slew of decks that you can use to battle with Bonfire. There’s Naya in all its variations, R/G Aggro, we’ve got UR Delver, and even some zombie variants have the capability of running it. In the end, any deck with a reasonable board presence can and should run the card.

Reasonable board presence? Yes. Because if you’re not a deck that can capitalize on the “All your creatures are dead, but mine aren’t!” angle, you’d be better off with Slagstorm or Pyroclasm. Bonfire works very specifically when the effect is also a Falter for your whole team. This means that it’s best as the primary removal spell in an otherwise aggressive deck. Simple enough.

You should play Bonfire in any deck like this, because it’s frankly the highest impact card available for use. It does so much for it’s cost – even at standard cost, it’s just a slightly weaker, but more Flexible Flame Wave. That sounds like a reasonable card to me, and Bonfire is actually just better than that.

All hope is not lost for the rest of us though! There are options to be had if you don’t have the money to invest in cards that are more expensive than some fat packs.

Against Bonfire:
It seems like only yesterday that we were all trying to figure out a deck that could defeat Delver consistently, and rid us of the menace that was Delver, Mana Leak, Vapor Snag, and Snapcaster Mage. Fortunately, they appear to be on the decline, but it’s still a very reasonable deck. There are two main things that the deck does very well that allow it to combat Bonfire – a pro-active way and a reactive way.

Pro actively, Delver is able to deal a lot of damage with few cards. When your 1-drop is capable of being a lightning bolt every turn, you don’t generally need to overextend into the board to find your victory. Delver is very capable of killing you using only 2-3 cards, and using the rest as support. This minimizes the ability of the deck to expose itself to a Bonfire.

On the other hand, Delver has reactive answers to Bonfire. Restoration Angel, allows you to keep the offence going if a Bonfire does happen – letting you sneak a creature in ‘with haste’. Alternatively, you could use a mana leak/dissipate to remove the offending spell from contention. Bonfire is a fairly mana intensive spell, and with positive benefit for each added mana you use, so there’s a pretty decent chance that he’ll run it into your leak pretty hard.

The other option is a Ramp deck. Creatures scale upwards in toughness with mana cost – generally. You’re more likely to get a substantial body on a 6-7 mana creature than on a 2 mana guy. It seems obvious, but if you jump the curve with mana dorks or actual Ramp spells, then you’ll often be able to ‘outrun’ the Bonfire’s kill range. A turn 4 titan is way too fast for a bonfire player to deal with – by the time that he’s got 7 mana available, and can even potentially draw a Bonfire to kill it, the game is likely over. Elesh Norn fits into a similar area here, where her toughness makes her mostly-bonfire-proof. You also get the benefit of playing individual creatures that can win the game on their own.

In conclusion, the best ways to fight bonfire are the ways we’ve traditionally fought good sweepers – be bigger than them, be faster than them, or be able to stop them from casting it. Regardless, don’t you dare walk into a tournament right now without a plan, or you’ll end up on the receiving end of “Miracle Bonfire, X = 4, swing for lethal?”

It happens more than you’d think. This wekeend is Magic Game Day, and there will almost certainly be Bonfires in the room. Don't go in unprepared. Know your formats, sling some spells, come out on top.

This weekend, I'll be at SCG: Washington DC on Saturday, spellslinging in the Standard Open. I don't have terribly high hopes for this tournament, but I'll be in the area, and it seems a waste to be in the city without participating. I've yet to decide what I'll actually be playing. It'll depend a lot on how I feel about the Naya mana base tomorrow, or if I'd rather just innovate BW Tokens to fight it. I'm hedging at the moment.

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