These are the three fundamental building blocks of Magic theory. You have probably read material on all three under the titles we have been using throughout this text:
The Philosophy of Fire
—Patrick Chapin, "Innovations—The Theory of Everything"
What ultimately became The Philosophy of Fire was an idea first introduced to the Magic canon by Adrian Sullivan during Urza Block Constructed PTQs in 1999. Sullivan set the bar for a red direct-damage spell at Shock (one mana, one card, 2 points). Ten such cards equals twenty damage, or the opponent's life total. You start a game of Magic: The Gathering with seven cards.
Basic Principles of the Philosophy of Fire:
1. Shock is the baseline.
2. Ten Shocks/ten cards deals 20 damage.
3. You start with seven cards.
When considered like this, the notion of burning the opponent to death seems straightforward. Even strategic.
As a lens, it is useful and has several implications.
We can build decks—even dominant decks—around it.
But as Patrick Chapin pointed out in 2010, it ultimately builds to one of the three fundamental pillars upon which rests this great game.
The basic unit of The Philosophy of Fire is Shock.
I think Shock is fine because it is the basic market rate for a burn spell. You can assemble a deck of "all Shocks" (or, essentially, redundant approximations of Shock), at least as a thought exercise. The idea of "ten Shocks" is an easy one to wrap your head around. And, as Adrian was always quick to point out way back when, you start with seven cards.
Setting the baseline at Shock has certain implications. If Shock is a "card," then what would we say about Flame Javelin? In terms of the damage it produces, a Flame Javelin is kinda sorta "two cards."
What about cards that are strictly superior to Shock, like Lightning Bolt?
Remember when we said that just having the strategic framework of The Philosophy of Fire can give rise to dominant decklists? If it only takes ten Shocks to kill the opponent... oh goodness gracious! It only takes seven Lightning Bolts to do the same!
(By the way, you start with seven cards.)
Patrick Sullivan's Red Deck Wins
Legacy – StarCityGames Open, Los Angeles
This deck features outstanding redundancy around Lightning Bolt. Lava Spike, Chain Lightning, and Rift Bolt all do about the same thing. Remember, you only have to deal 20 damage, and with cards like Flame Rift and Fireblast, you might need fewer than seven burn spells to do your
bloody burning work.
I would be fine if many of you stopped reading here.
The really useful and actionable part of this theory is simply that we can assign killing the opponent and winning the game to some number of cards. Even if you are playing a mixed deck—even a Limited deck—with the right tools, this should help you win games. Let's say you have a deck with a bunch of creatures and two Lightning Bolts. You happen to have them both in your hand.
You started off strong but the opponent is clawing back. You aren't sure what to do because you are falling behind on the battlefield to your opponent's bigger creatures. You can now ask yourself a question like this: What happens if I just attack with everything? Can I get my opponent to 6?
Because if the answer is "yes" that means that you might just be able to win the game on the spot with those Lightning Bolts!
The power of The Philosophy of Fire to teach us how Magic works goes well beyond just building a redundant direct-damage deck.
What is really interesting about this strategic framework is what it says about... well... everything.
If we call Shock "a card" and peg death at ten of those... do you see the core implication?
We can observe a relationship between cards and life total.
Further, the "ten Shocks" baseline (or "seven Lightning Bolts" baseline) also gives us a relationship structure connecting "number of cards" and "winning the game."
In some decks, the answer is just "two."
These relationships can also change how we think about basic notions of card advantage. Consider...
A card like Annihilate is pretty straightforward. I get to kill a creature; I get to draw a card. Card advantage!
How about current Standard option Searing Blood? When you are putting together a hit squad on the opponent's life total, Searing Blood becomes like a red Annihilate. You kill a creature and the upside of damaging the opponent gives you something you can build toward with six other Lightning Bolts.
Vidianto Wijaya's Boros Burn
Standard – 2014 StarCityGames Open, Los Angeles
Searing Blood is just one card that has some notorious upside in Vidi's recent Open Series Top 8 deck. How might you characterize Skullcrack?
I think a lot of the time, people think of Skullcrack as a Lightning Strike that only goes to the opponent's head. Functionally, that's how it gets used in a fair number of games where its owner had some spare mana during his or her opponent's end step. But if that were the case, no one would play the card to begin with. When the opponent plays a big lifegain spell in Standard like Gray Merchant of Asphodel or Sphinx's Revelation, Skullcrack often acts like a red Counterspell. It doesn't counter the opponent's entire card, but it stops the strategy-crushing lifegain while—like Searing Blood—adding to the "seven Lightning Bolt" total. A weird sort of half-Dismiss.
What some of you have probably already concluded for yourselves is that pegging a card at Shock is arbitrary; it's fine, because Shock is the market rate, but it's still arbitrary. There are many spells that give us life-for-cards relationships.
Sylvan Library could give you an additional card for 4 life, or two for 8.
Necropotence burgled your first card for the turn, but would give you as many cards as you liked for 1 life each.
They only gave me two hands and ten fingers.
Further, certain cards can help us uncover the relationships between not only cards and life total, but cards, life total, and mana.
The Philosophy of Fire gives us a different lens to approach the utility of the cards we use, and even card advantage.
What makes Goblin Guide so good?
As a one-mana creature with haste, Goblin Guide can approximate a Shock on turn one, dealing 2 points of damage. When you hit the opponent with a turn-one Goblin Guide, he or she drops to 18, meaning you only need nine Shocks to continue with your plan.
But unlike a Shock, which goes directly to the graveyard, Goblin Guide is a sustained source of damage. If the opponent doesn't remove it or put something in front of it, Goblin Guide will be there to deal 2 points again!
Every time you hit the opponent with a recurring damage source, the number of cards you actually have to spend to win the game goes down. After one Goblin Guide strike taking the opponent from 20 to 18, you need only nine Shocks or six Lightning Bolts; after three strikes, that number drops to seven Shocks
Decks with mixed types of cards—creatures as well as burn spells, for example—can play different, flexible games around the obstacles opponents put into their paths. Wijaya's deck, with its Ash Zealots and Chandra's Phoenixes, draws on some of these principles, but can challenge its player with some interesting questions that other kinds of decks won't typically ask: Is a burn spell better spent pointed at the opponent's face or clearing the way for a creature that can hit more than once?
The answer? It depends.
Which will get in more damage?
The ultimate implication here is that any method of killing an opponent can be associated with some number of cards. Although it was named for the concept of direct damage, there is no reason to limit our thinking. Library exhaustion and adding poison counters can also build toward counting and specialized looks at card economy.
Although library exhaustion makes for a less refined set of counting than direct damage, the same principles of translating some number of cards to killing the opponent applies.
You'll notice that I titled this article "Life and Cards I," which means that next week we will look at life and cards from the opposite direction.
This card was recently called the most underrated spell in Standard:
Can we look at it and say "card advantage machine?"
The answer, shockingly, is not just "yes" but "always."
Find out how next week!
Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo.