Brewed Up: R/G Prowess (Modern)

Fresh off of his Top 4 placement in a Modern Super Qualifier, Kenan Diab returns with a fresh take on an old favorite. He wrote the guide on Mono-Red Phoenix and today he is back to show us how Prowess can succeed even without Bedlam Reveler. Grab your Goyfs, we are going Gruul.

Lands (18)
4 Bloodstained Mire
3 Copperline Gorge
4 Mountain
4 Scalding Tarn
3 Stomping Ground
Creatures (14)
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Soul-Scar Mage
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Hooting Mandrills
Spells (28)
4 Lava Dart
3 Lava Spike
4 Light Up the Stage
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Manamorphose
4 Mishra’s Bauble
4 Seal of Fire
1 Tarfire
Sideboard (15)
3 Alpine Moon
2 Surgical Extraction
2 Eidolon of the Great Revel
1 Deglamer
1 Destructive Revelry
2 Dismember
1 Choke
1 Kari Zev’s Expertise
2 Klothys, God of Destiny
75 Cards Total

Result: 9-2 overall
Wins: Ponza three times, RUG Snow twice, Dredge once, Niv to Light once, Amulet once, and a Round 9 scoop into Top 8.
Losses: Bant Control (timeout) and Neoform (terrible matchup and excellent opponent).

Background About Me
Last spring, I won the PTQ at GP Toronto 2019 with Mono-Red Prowess, featuring Faithless Looting, Arclight Phoenix, and Forked Bolt, and I wrote about it at some length on a shared Google Doc, which I posted to Reddit and was later edited into a properly formatted twopart article on Good Grief Games.

After scrubbing out in London and disappearing from tournament Magic for a while, I’m beginning my Lazarus-esque campaign to return to the Pro Tour, and it was only natural to start where I had succeeded before.  Of course, Faithless Looting isn’t legal anymore, but much of what was written before still rang true to me.  In particular, all the basic ideas about the one-drop Prowess game are just as correct today as they were back then.  It’s a good exercise for the new pilot to try and disentangle what is obsolete and what isn’t, as the above decklist mostly overlaps.  So instead of a long tournament report or detailed guide, which would mostly resemble the old articles anyway, all I want to write about is my reasoning for the changes you see above.

Before continuing, I wish to acknowledge my friend Christoph Schlom, who came up with most of the important deckbuilding ideas in the below, including the most important idea of splashing for the green creatures.  He played an indispensable role in the development of this list.

The Build

There’s no getting around it, the strategy of storming off burn spells in the hopes that a 1/2 without trample will connect has certain inherent weaknesses.  It’s not so good against all the one-drop removal in certain spots, it’s harder and harder to actually hit with the prowess creatures as boards naturally become wider over time, and it’s something you realistically can only do a few times per game given how many cards the typical “good prowess turn” consumes.  Of course, Light Up the Stage goes a long way to helping with these problems by giving you some source of card advantage so that, for example, you can two-for-one yourself occasionally for the greater good, but nevertheless sometimes things don’t work out.

This was, in my opinion, the reason why Arclight Phoenix really put the February 2019 version of this deck over the top.  It was an extremely resilient, evasive threat that (a) naturally worked well with your Prowess plan A, (b) required opposing pilots to do more than just naively attack the Prowess angle of the deck if they wanted to win longer games, and (c) typically forced opponents into making disadvantageous trades, further recouping card advantage.  So although I understand why Kiln Fiend and Runaway Steam-Kin are reasonable replacement threats in a post-Phoenix world, they are completely inadequate as a plan B.  They are weak to exactly the same things that Soul-Scar Mage and Monastery Swiftspear are.

Hence, Tarmogoyf and Hooting Mandrills.  Besides obviously sidestepping all the common anti-prowess plans – Damping Sphere, Auriok Champion/Kor Firewalker, little creatures that gain life like Kitchen Finks – they are well sized for present-day Modern.  For example, the largest creature the premier midrange archetype (Ponza) is capable of producing is a 4/4 for 3RR (Glorybringer), and it has no clean one-for-one answer to Tarmogoyf anywhere in the stock 75, at least as of the present writing.  They’re going to have to double Bolt it.  For another, in the prowess pseudo-mirror, Tarmogoyf is about as awesome a mirror breaker as you could hope for, especially with Seal of Fire, Mishra’s Bauble, and the one Tarfire backing it up.  And so on.  And they naturally work well with the prowess plan A.  You fill the graveyard with lots of cards very fast, so it’s almost always the case by turn 3 that Mandrills is castable and Goyf is huge.

As always, as cards become less well-positioned and thereby less popular, the metagame increasingly respects them less and less, and in turn they become playable once more, and I think we’ve circled back around to a state where the stupid green beaters are not just playable but also effective. 

The most surprising choice besides the green cards is Seal of Fire and Tarfire as the extra burn spells in this deck.  Unlike the more common Burst Lightning and Firebolt, they do not promise any additional advantage in the late game, and unlike my old pet card Forked Bolt, it is inflexible, so one might imagine that these spells are even weaker.  Of course, they work well with Tarmogoyf, and that is the primary reason why they are being played, but I believe that Seal of Fire in particular is powerful in a subtle way that is not widely appreciated.  It lets you “prepay” for a Shock effect; you get a prowess trigger now, and you get to decide – at instant speed and for free – when to actually realize the 2 damage.  (NB: Tarfire really is a very weak card, probably want to play something else there, the Goyf value isn’t worth it.)

This property of Seal of Fire is not obviously strong, and as an aside, I am amused that I am once again defending a contrarian opinion about how to fill out a prowess deck:

Fig. 1: A prominent skeptic’s critique; note that I am losing the people’s vote.

Screen Shot 2020-04-22 at 8.04.38 PM

But of course, as with Forked Bolt before it, my counterargument is that people underestimate the value of having options, or at least they value it less than I do.  In this particular case, the idea is that red Prowess ideally wants to do stuff on turn 2 and 3 no matter what the opponent is up to, and sometimes the opponent hasn’t done stuff yet that is worthy of a card.  For instance, in this deck, I am not excited to randomly shock the opponent’s face if my opponent might conceivably play something I want to handle later on.

For instance, perhaps I might want to clear a small blocker on some future turn since it will allow me to push through more than two points of damage.  Seal of Fire obviously facilitates this since it can be converted into two damage to any target at instant speed for free.  Perhaps it will just turn into 2 damage upstairs later, but perhaps it will do better than that.  Of course, if you were playing some other burn spell instead, you could just hold it, but then you would not only be spending mana inefficiently (especially if it was a sorcery like Firebolt), but you would also miss out on one Prowess point of damage, which could matter if your creatures are removed.

Moreover, it forces the opponent to play around it.  This sounds dumb when talking about a Shock, but it’s better than it sounds since the activation is free.  That is, you usually gain a little tempo when you change your opponent’s decisions in this way, as compared to the typical case of representing some particular spell, which usually requires you to hold up mana and possibly waste it.  To be even more explicit: much of the time when Seal “does something good” but you don’t know it yet, you get to see an extra card that you normally wouldn’t have seen before having to make a decision about where the 2 damage goes.

This is because the most common way of playing around an on-board Seal is to spend some time and mana, often up to a turn’s worth, doing something about the Seal (deploying a lower value threat, removing the Seal, etc.) before doing the thing that was actually desired.  This advantage is nearly invisible and easy to miss because your opponent doesn’t usually tell you about how they wished they could have sequenced differently, and it frequently results in an extra point or two of damage because you get to play your hand more effectively with the extra time and information.

To be clear, I’m not saying Seal of Fire is a powerhouse that should be included in more decks, just that it is a good, quality card that you should feel proud to cast, not an embarrassing concession to Tarmogoyf that inspires shame and self-loathing.  To cut them because “they’re just worse than Shock” would be a mistake.  As an aside to the Forked Bolt lovers who wonder why I have forsaken it, it pains me to say it, but Lava Dart has basically eaten its lunch.

Mishra’s Bauble: an untouchable staple.  Mishra’s Bauble is both inherently a very strong card, and it synergizes well with both of this deck’s plans.  Like Seal of Fire, it is not a stupid filler card for Goyf, but unlike Seal of Fire it is legitimately a draw to this version of the deck.  Bauble does everything you want for free – it’s a free prowess trigger, a free card in the graveyard for Mandrills, a free extra type for Goyf, a free card next turn.  It can also provide crucial information for planning future turns, and it obviously works well with fetchlands. It is often one of your best draws when you’re just trying to count to 20.  

Tarfire and Lava Spike: Tarfire is quite bad, and frankly, so is Lava Spike.  A Prowess pilot disliking Lava Spike might be surprising to some readers, but perhaps it will seem less counterintuitive if one recalls that even actual Burn has trouble winning without a little help from its creatures.  In comparison, the way this deck is constructed, we have no hope of winning if we cannot connect early and often.  So it is crucial to have a certain density of burn spells that can clear the battlefield and Lava Spike is definitely not that. It’s just filler, and I would not cut the other burn spells to make room for it.  12 interactive spells feels good to me, just as it did in February 2019.  So these are the prime targets for further improvement.

The Sideboard
Alpine Moon: I want to emphasize that you could play Blood Moon if you want to change the sideboard to have enough cards to bring the green creatures out, but I don’t think Blood Moon is good enough right now to merit that concession. Alpine Moon is a cheap speedbump in most of the big mana matchups, and that’s all you really need.

Deglamer: Klothys is very good against us.  You need an out somewhere.  This came up during the tournament.  As long as Ponza is a real deck, this is an important one-of.

Klothys, God of Destiny: There are three common matchups where it really shines.  First, it’s good against all the Uro/Astrolabe decks.  Those decks lean on Uro heavily and Klothys is a nice resilient, proactive answer given that graveyard hate is generally extremely awful against them.  Also, they are slow enough where something like a bad Sulfuric Vortex is still good.  Second, it’s good against Ponza.  When you have it and they don’t, it feels like you can’t ever fall behind on tempo. Short of multiple Glorybringers and/or Obstinate Baloths, they just don’t do very much damage each turn, and when they do have these cards, Klothys tips the race back in your favor.  Furthermore, Klothys is a pretty good answer to Klothys itself, which is very effective against you.  It returns the game to some sort of normal equilibrium state since we’re all draining each other for two every turn, and I think you’re favored in such games.  Third, it’s good against Burn and all the red Prowess pseudo-mirrors.  Just as in the Arclight Phoenix days, both decks become much slower post-board.  Klothys is excellent in this context.

Kari Zev’s Expertise: What sometimes happens in the big mana matchups is that you’ll almost win and then they cast Primeval Titan or Wurmcoil Engine or something.  Hence, a Threaten to land the finishing blow.  Probably too cute, but I couldn’t help myself.

What really didn’t work in the sideboard were the old staples of Dismember and Destructive Revelry (formerly Smash to Smithereens or Abrade).  There just don’t seem to be enough worthwhile targets right now.  Jury is still out on what should replace it.  I have many ideas to test but none I’m confident in recommending.

The main problem is that we can’t play Bedlam Reveler in a deck that plays Baubles and Seals and delves frequently for Mandrills and Klothys.  You might try to meet halfway and play Goyf without Bauble or Seal but from experience, Modern isn’t Legacy, and too often for my liking, I find that my 4/5 Goyfs just don’t win combat.  But without Reveler, the deck is really not good when it floods.  I admit that this is a big problem, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for thinking this is a dealbreaker.  If anyone has some ideas how to fix this problem, I’d love to hear them.

The High Marginal Value of Theory
Having not played Modern in a few months between some winter WPNQ’s and yesterday’s tournament, it’s nice to know that first-principles theorycrafting combined with some light testing can suffice to produce a somewhat novel 75 that, although flawed in some ways, still performs well and supports the theoretical conclusions made in the preceding.

Given Frank Karsten’s well-known warning about how hard it is to make correct inferences about Magic via direct empirical observation, I think we would all do well to strive for more careful and more thoughtful theoretical discussion, seeking better understanding of general principles that can teach us how things work without having to see it in action first.  Or perhaps what we really need are more explicit methodologies for thinking about the game so that discussions don’t devolve into irreconcilable “differences in philosophy.”  I don’t know precisely where to begin, but it seems obvious to me that our beloved game is deep enough that we should try.  Even after nearly 27 years of Magic, I reckon that we have a long way to go, and there is probably plenty of low-hanging fruit yet to be picked.

I was super excited when I saw Kenan’s build on Facebook so I just had to have him come write a piece on it. It is not secret that we love all things prowess here at GGG and Kenan did not let us down. I cannot say for sure whether this build can hang with the ridiculous Lurrus meta. But once the ban hammer straightens things back out, we really should give it a shot. So what is your take? Could you see yourself taking the plunge on Goyf in a Prowess deck? Let us know in our discussion group. Or if you would like to take a swing at writing content for the site you can contact us directly here. We will be back soon with another article for you to enjoy. Until then my friends.

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