My love affair with red magic really began during Scourge but wasn’t quite solidified until I planeswalked to Kamigawa. Kumano and his welcoming committee were there to take me by the hand and lead me down the Path of Anger’s Flame once and for all. I had picked up a copy of the Spiritbane preconstructed deck, and my friend Ryan (agentanaranjado, if you happen to see him on MTGO) got the Kami Reborn precon. The matchup of these two decks was heavily in favor of mine, and the ensuing games served as something of a ‘primal scene,’ permanently imprinting on my mind exactly what red is (or at least should be) capable of.
In Kamigawa, red spells (and especially red commons) did something very simple, straightforward and powerful: they dealt damage. They dealt damage in various ways, to various degrees, in various circumstances, but they were largely your straightforward burn spells — causing instant speed direct damage. Ever since Kamigawa block, red has sought to re-define itself, which seems an unusually self-aware endeavor for the color of reckless impulse. Nowadays we have to deal with Galvanic Arc, Dogpile, and the atrocious Fatal Attraction as feeble attempts at innovative burn spells. Not my kind of pyromancy.
At the time I loved Glacial Ray the most. It’s worse than a Shock — unless you start splicing it onto other spells. But it was that splice mechanic that made the spell worthwhile. Splice remains my favorite mechanic. Glacial Ray spliced onto a Lava Spike was about the height of magic for me back then. It was a simple and remarkably fun way for red to get some mileage out of its commons. Red card advantage made things a whole lot more interesting back then. And Ire of Kaminari, First Volley, Spiraling Embers, Barrel Down Sokenzan, and that beloved uncommon Flames of the Blood Hand rounded out the firepower that the advantageous team of Glacial Ray and Lava Spike kindled.
But there was one spell absolutely essential to a red mage’s success in both Kamigawa and Ravnica. One burn spell at the common level was bold enough to look the opponent in the face and in a controlled tone that belied a deep anger boiling underneath, say: “You think you’re special with your ‘card advantage’ and ‘recursion?’ You ain’t shit. If red can’t have card advantage, nobody can!” The mage would then let loose a plume of flame from his hand and engulf the offending Zubera or Thief of Hope in an incendiary blast so powerful it charred not only the being’s body but also its soul, banishing it from play and from the graveyard — permanently.
At first, I had assistance in the task of eradicating these recursive threats from one foxy uncommon: Samurai of the Pale Curtain. With her on the board, even a lowly First Volley could take down a mighty Kami of Lunacy — nullifying that Soulshift mechanic that caused so many problems. But then I became a Pauper and lost access to those uncommons that could do just enough to keep me from getting overrun by Zuberas. I lost the ability to use Kumano’s activated ability to knock out hordes of spirits before they hit the graveyard and brought their little buddies back. I lost everything that gave red a fighting chance against monsters that just wouldn’t die –
Except Yamabushi’s Flame.
Yamabushi’s Flame was there for me when my adversary invoked the final words of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yamabushi’s Flame was there for me when the endless spirit chain was bogging down my ability to deliver a swift 20 to the dome. And, when we made our visit to Ravnica, and took a look at that ancient document the Guildpact, Yamabushi’s Flame was the red instant there for me when I became acquainted for the first time with that blind S.O.B. in the belfry.
Red didn’t like Orzhov or Golgari when those black-infused guilds first hit the scene. Red definitely struggled against the likes of Stinkweed Imp, Golgari Brownscale, and Blind Hunter. But at least we red mages had a prayer back then. We had one tool in our belt that we knew under normal circumstances could eliminate the grave threat posed by all three of those creatures. And so we proudly and with purpose held our copies of Yamabushi’s Flame in hand, waiting for the rearing of ugly heads so that we could blast them into oblivion. This wasn’t necessarily card advantage, but it certainly stopped a kind of card disadvantage. (Nowadays I am loathe but sometimes compelled to throw away several cards to keep a Stinkweed Imp off the board — burn that could otherwise scald face.) If Castigate hit the stack we just tapped 3 and aimed Yamabushi’s Flame at the dome, knowing it would be long gone once that discard spell resolved. (It was that good.)
It was a challenge for me to watch Yamabushi’s Flame climb on the train and roll on out of Standard when Wizards unloaded Time Spiral on us. This latest block lacks an analogue — or anything that enables red mages effectively to fight recursive guys or that horrendous airborne 8-point lifeswinger. Red’s potency has been curtailed, at least in Pauper, and one major manifestation is its inability to even the playing field in any zone that isn’t ‘in play.’ I certainly understand that red shouldn’t be able to rescue creatures from the grave, or search its library, or tutor for a specific answer. But, in my mind, Yamabushi’s Flame represents a sector of red that counterbalances the depth and resourcefulness of blue and black. Red needs to be able to destroy resources, wherever those resources may be. I may even go so far as to say, if black maintains its substantial lifegain province, then cards like Shred Memory may be more fairly located in red, which hurts nowadays for answers to pretty much everything except x/1s. Black has a large sampling of what colors can do, and red has a very small sampling. (If we ever saw a card like Flames of the Blood Hand at common — I would be quite impressed and happy. But I’ll start my wish list with something that’s possible.) The card advantage of Glacial Ray and the preventative medicine of Yamabushi’s Flame are replaced by the prohibitive cost of Pyromatics, the delicate foreplay of Grapeshot, and the dumb luck of Surging Flame.
Red — the control color? Standard certainly looks that way right now. I dearly hope that 10th Edition, or Lorwyn, straightens things out and returns red to its aggressive best. I have no problem with red having a control element — certainly, grant red as many abilities as you like, Wizards! But red has lately become, in Pauper Standard, the color everybody splashes just so they can handle the metagame. The people who want to play red because they love fire are out of luck.
And no, Ghostfire is NOT a replacement for Yamabushi’s Flame. Nice try.