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A Quick Look At Fireball Steel

What a weekend! I’m very glad I got to take part in the last World Championships as we currently know it before it transitions into the new Invitational. Between four ChannelFireball players making the top eight, O&T winning the Player of the Year award and just having it in my backyard it was a great weekend for a lot of players. At some point I’ll need to recap, but right now I just want to focus on the Team Fireball deck: WU Tempered Steel.

Here’s the list if you haven’t seen it already:
[deck]4 Inkmoth Nexus
2 Moorland Haunt
9 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Etched Champion
4 Glint Hawk
4 Memnite
1 Mikaeus, the Lunarch
4 Signal Pest
4 Vault Skirge
4 Dispatch
4 Glint Hawk Idol
4 Mox Opal
4 Origin Spellbomb
4 Tempered Steel
Sideboard:
2 Dismember
1 Glacial Fortress
3 Hero of Bladehold
1 Oblivion Ring
4 Shrine of Loyal Legions
3 Spellskite
1 Timely Reinforcements[/deck]

This was a solid choice for the Standard portion of Worlds and ended up with the highest winning percentage* of the seven most popular decks. With a 61.61% overall and for just the team members playing the deck closer to 65% there’s not much for me to say about Steel’s performance during the swiss portion of Worlds. Some people have slagged Team Fireball for not playing something more ‘innovative’ or that Steel was a bad choice based on the hindsight of the Quarterfinals of Worlds. Frankly I’m not sure if some actually understand how high of a winning percentage that actually is at a Pro Tour. There’s also a bit of irony in telling some of the best players in the world to play a more skill-intensive deck, because obviously WW was the first choice for them and they never considered blue cards. PV in particular is well-known for his love of basic Plains and white creatures.

That and the deck they did end up playing had a an 80% win-rate or better against every commonly played control deck in the hands of other pros. Oops.

*http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/eventcoverage/worlds11/smmeta

As for the deck’s performance in the quarterfinals, what can I say? Junya Iyanaga’s Wolf Run deck was by far one of the worst possible matches and the way it was configured it was practically preboarded against a deck like Steel. It didn’t help everyone had the run-bads at the same time, Luis’s match being the most painful when he lost the final game on what amounted to multiple coin-flips. Ultimately the swiss and top eight illustrate everything good and bad about Steel in a nut-shell. It can put up an impressive performance against a top-class of opponents and decks, but can still just lose to itself sometimes. The best of five format also meant it played even more sideboarded games than usual while Steel excels in game one situations. It isn’t the massive swing some make it sound, but extra sideboard games do make a difference.

[card]Mikaeus, the Lunarch[/card] is clearly the worst card in the deck by a large margin, but everything else is a straight four-of and slides neatly between having the consistent curve-out Steel is known for and dropping the weak two slot entirely. The cards that stand out the most for people tend to be [card]Etched Champion[/card] and [card]Origin Spellbomb[/card]. Both have seen play in previous iterations of Steel both in Block and Standard but had dropped off the radar in more recent builds. With the metagame transitioning back toward aggro, aggro-control and midrange decks the Champion was positioned again to do real damage. Protection from nearly everything is nice to have in a format where the ground can be completely gummed up with tokens or Illusions on a regular basis. With a [card]Tempered Steel[/card] in play, she can actually just be an Abyss if the opponent attacks on the ground with anything short of a Titan. [card]Origin Spellbomb[/card] isn’t particularly impressive and is mostly just there as yet another one-drop and something cheap to power [card]Mox Opal[/card] and various [card]Glint Hawk[/card]s.

Going back to what [card]Etched Champion[/card] had going for it, one of the biggest advantages Steel currently holds is the sheer number of evasion creatures the deck has access too. Take a good look at the numbers: A full 20 creatures in the deck have some form of evasion and even the lands [card]Moorland Haunt[/card] and [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] fly (or produce flyers). For many creature mirrors this can be a huge advantage as a deck like GW or Illusions has nearly no flying creatures at its disposal.

Control decks also don’t pack the amount of removal necessary to beat Steel game one and post-board Shrine of Loyal Legions can control the game single-handed. A Tempered Steel and Shrine of Loyal Legions in play is a practical death sentence, and even Inkmoth Nexus and Steel can beat Flare or UB if they were forced to use an early Doom Blade. Even six-drops can’t regularly stabilize the board as Dispatch can… well, Dispatch the creature on end-step and win on a clear board or provide time to reinforce the board. Perhaps Grixis has the amount of reusable removal necessary to beat Steel on a consistent basis, but other control decks don’t have the juice for it.

Now do I think Tempered Steel is the deck to beat going forward? Not really. This Standard metagame is very diverse and compared to the last couple of years I’m actually amazed how many decks remain viable week to week. Just the speed in the evolution of the Standard metagame is impressive to behold. It seems like only a few weeks ago Ari Lax and myself were the only ones still considering Steel a real deck, then the week before Worlds multiple other authors took note that the hate had died down and suddenly post-board games looked a lot rosier than a month ago. With this resurgence I doubt people will take the deck lying down and over-react in the short term before moving back to business as usual.

This deck took advantage of a metagame that had moved away from artifacts and artifact hate and presented matches that Steel could demolish. GW Tokens was predicted to be the most popular deck going into Worlds and Steel could thrash the average GW hand. Meanwhile anyone who actually liked the variety of [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] decks available would also be easy prey unless they had the right set of stabilizers and removal package to battle Steel. If Wolf Run had been a larger factor moving into the event perhaps Steel wouldn’t have been so successful, but ultimately Wolf Ramp falling out of favor and people dropping [card]Slagstorm [/card]and [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] became the final tipping point. Steel won’t have this kind of a perfect storm for a while after Worlds and instead it just go back to being a reasonable choice for the near future.

That’s all for now, later this week I’ll fully go over what Worlds brought to the table and perhaps a few thoughts on the final true World Championships.

Josh Silvestri

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