In the game of Magic, there have always been decks that were a little different, a little risqué, if you will. These decks stretched the creative thread that binds the game and at times have nearly caused it to snap. But not once did a deck break it. At the same time as decks like John Durrant’s infamous ‘War of the Frogs’ and even through the dark shadows of ‘Humility-Sliver’, there were always the companion decks that never ventured into lunacy. These decks have formed the staple of competition and magical lore since the game was invented, decks such as ‘Land Destruction’ and ‘Countersliver’, decks that we all know and perhaps love.
But as distant and as varied as these decks are, they have always obeyed the primary rule of deck construction: Have a way to win.
When this law is broken, as sometimes happens, although rarely, even on the more exotic shores of casual play, decks grow up to become fun but barely playable. Decks such as the Disenchant deck, the Fog deck, etc. But even when this law is broken, they have always stayed within the confines of a manageable and understandable bracket. They all know that they can’t win. We know it, they know it, everybody knows it.
But recently, for the first time, a deck type has developed that falls into the category ‘none of the above’. It is not at all a deck that is in any way crazy. It does not acknowledge that it cannot win. And yet, it still has no win condition. This deck is, of course, Fires of Yavimaya.
At first glance, ‘Fires’ as it is known appears to have a win condition. It’s examples all contain creatures with the capacity to do damage. On further inspection, however, we can see that this is merely the professional front to a weak, diluted collection of poorly chosen cards.
There are 2 basic win conditions that it is possible for a deck to contain elements with which to seek to attain:
1. The reduction of the opponent’s life total to a figure less than 1; and/or
2. The reduction of the opponent’s library such that he/she is unable to draw a card (note that for these purposes, the condition of going first and thus fulfilling clause number 2 is not considered sufficient).
Let us analyse a typical Fires deck to see if it fulfils either of those requirements.
The following deck is taken from The Dojo and is the deck used by Robert Dougherty at PT Chicago. Robert was a semifinalist. I believe we would all call this deck a typical Fires of Yavimaya deck, but variations will be considered later if you disagree.
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Birds of Paradise
4 River Boa
4 Chimeric Idol
2 Jade Leech
4 Fires of Yavimaya
4 Saproling Burst
4 Rhystic Lightning
1 Ancient Hydra
4 Karplusan Forest
3 Rishadan Port
4 Kavu Chameleon
2 Calming Verse
The first thing to notice about this deck is the lack of any form of targeted card-drawing or ‘milling’ (the practice of putting cards from the top of a library directly into the graveyard). Bearing this in mind, let us analyse the deck for the purposes of win-condition number 2 (the opponent has insufficient cards in his or her library). It can clearly be seen that Fires of Yavimaya cannot achieve victory through this win condition. Variations on Fires have never included the most basic utensil for this, a Millstone, and likewise they have never included any means to achieve this whatsoever. Clause 2 has not been met.
On the other hand, it is a little harder to see why Clause 1 is not met. First, it is important to understand that to achieve this win condition it is necessary to have a permanent or recurring threat. You will probably notice how many cards Fires uses that cannot possibly meet these criteria. The only form of targeted damage this deck uses is Rhystic Lightning, which cannot dish sufficient damage to a player to achieve a victory. Even in the unlikely event of drawing all four and none of them being paid for, this still does not reduce the opponent’s life total to less than 1. They fall down because they are not recurring. The other main ‘threats’ that the deck type uses is Blastoderms and Saproling Bursts. Neither of these are permanent threats. Both of them fade away after a few turns, and are left sitting in your graveyard as the opponent is hurting you. They do not fulfil the requirements of this clause because they are not permanent threats.
A single Shock cannot be called a win condition.
Likewise, a single Goblin cannot seriously be called a win condition, and it is for this reason that the other cards used by Fires that do not hurt the controller as much as the opponent (Earthquake and Hurricane) cannot be called sufficient for a win condition. Although I begin to introduce an element of opposition, which is usually unhelpful, it is equally important to consider that the deck requires an opponent for a win condition. If that opponent is using any cards, it is highly likely that some of those cards are to be considered answers for a single 1/1. This said, the elves are discounted, and the River Boas are to be treated highly skeptically. All that remains that Fires could call its win condition are the not-widely-used Jade Leech and the vulnerable and unimpressive Chimeric Idol. Neither creature is particularly evasive (e.g., no trample or flying or landwalk, etc.), and neither is so large or steadfast as to be of even limited nuisance to the average opponent. They may get through a little damage, but this is a chance and rare occurrence. Every deck that you will find in use will have several cards that can be used to defend against or slay them.
As I have said, I do not want to say that ‘Fires loses to such and such’ or ‘so and so has an answer for Chimeric Idol’, but we must all face that it is only truly a win condition if you can win with it. That means defeating an opponent, and if that opponent is running a deck that does not fall into the same ‘I have no Win Condition’ bracket, Fires of Yavimaya should lose.
And yet it doesn’t.
The reason for this is simply that it sets up too many hoops for the opponent to jump through. Although the threats contained in the deck may not be unstoppable alone, the average Fires deck will be running so many of them that if one threat is dealt with, the guard is up in the wrong place for the other fist that could just hurt a little.
This is enabled by the key card – Fires of Yavimaya.
In this respect, Fires is really more of a combo deck than a straight beatdown deck, using several cards to an effect that none could achieve alone. Without Fires, it is a far inferior deck. So don’t scoff at the player who will counter or disenchant a Fires. Without it, the deck is seriously weakened. Picture Channelball without Channel – it might be able to kill, but it’ll have a much harder job doing it. For the same reasons you would Quash a Channel, you should Scour a Fires if the opportunity arises. Although Saproling Burst is a very strong target for the removal, it is also made far weaker by the loss of Fires, and as it is not a guaranteed target, go for the Fires – Blastoderms and others are also hurt if you do.
To beat any deck you must play to your strengths. Against Fires, it is more important to play to its weaknesses. Firstly, slow the combo – stop birds and elves if possible. Secondly, take out the combo – kill the Fires of Yavimaya. Lastly, establish sufficient board presence to handle the creatures as they pop out. The loss of Fires should make you far more successful at this.
You wanna beat Fires? Kill the combo. Without a jawbone, the teeth fall right out.