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By: Sabi0, Kyle Lewis
May 25 2018 11:00am
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Hello again readers. In our first Back to Basics article, I mentioned three key pillars of Magic theory: card advantage, The Philosophy of Fire, and tempo. In this article, we will be discussing The Philosophy of Fire, an innovative concept which was formally introduced by Adrian Sullivan in 1999. Since this is a concept some of our readers may be unfamiliar with, let’s address an important question.

What is The Philosophy of Fire?



In a word, The Philosophy of Fire is a way of drawing a relationship between life and cards. It specifically wants to answer the questions of how much life a card is worth, and how many cards you need to win.


Usually when we talk about The Philosophy of Fire, we’re interested in dealing damage to our opponent. If you look at a modern burn deck for example, a lot of the cards do something like Lava Spike--three damage to your opponent. If you were inclined, you could build a modern deck with only cards that basically do the same thing as Lava Spike Rift Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Skullcrack, etc. In such a deck we could say that three damage equals one card, and if you have seven live cards you win the game (three damage seven times being twenty one damage).


So What?


By thinking about The Philosophy of Fire, you can have a better idea of how to evaluate your cards. Here’s a clean example. Say you are playing a modern burn deck. You have two Goblin Guide and your opponent has a Trained Armodon (dating myself) on the board. You have a Lightning Bolt in hand. Let’s say your opponent is at nine life (aka three bolts or cards worth of life). If you cast bolt targeting your opponent, you’ve knocked them down to six; then you attack with both your guides getting them to four and having spent two cards for five damage. Alternatively, you could bolt their creature, then attack for four, trading one card for four life and putting them to five.

In the above scenario, killing off their blocker raised the value of the Lightning Bolt from three damage to four. Even though the first line dealt one more damage it also cost you one full card more. If you bear in mind that your cards should ideally be worth about three life each, you can see that you are probably getting a better deal off the second line. Indeed, if we expand the example out into another turn where you draw another bolt and your opponent draws another blocker, the second line sets up a lethal attack, while the first line only allows bolting their face and leaving them at one.

The Big Picture

What The Philosophy of Fire aims to allow you to do is set a damage value on your cards and answer the question of how many cards it takes to win the game. In a modern burn deck, it’s sensible to set your rate at three because you’re playing a hyper-redundant deck where most of your cards do three damage, and your goal is to win by casting seven of them. This allows you a metric to see how your cards are performing. If Eidolon of the Great Revel gets one activation where it dies to Fatal Push, you’re getting below rate for it. If you get two triggers off Eidolon before it dies, it’s operating at one point better than a bolt. Similarly, Goblin Guide obviously carries the drawback of drawing your opponent's extra cards, but it’s acting as a better Lightning Bolt if it hits twice.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you should be cutting Goblin Guides from your deck if they die on turn one or that you should never take lines where your cards go below rate, but rather suggesting you keep how much damage your cards are doing in mind, particularly when sideboarding against particular decks or plotting out your turns.

A Bit of History


The Philosophy of Fire holds an important place in Magic’s history, because it’s one of the first attempts to apply theory to aggressive strategies. The creation of the Philosophy of Fire in 1999 postdates the original Sligh deck (an aggressive creature and burned based strategy) by more than five years(1). The Philosophy of Fire therefore wasn’t some breakthrough that established that aggressive decks could win, rather it wanted to answer the question of why these decks win. If you look at the original Sligh deck or the 2001 standard deck Mike Flores references in his original Philosophy of Fire article(2), you’ll notice that these decks play some aggressively bad cards. You’ll find such hits as Dwarven Trader, Goblins of the Flarg (COMBO!), Firebrand Ranger, and Rage Weaver (note the deck in question played neither green sources nor green or black creatures).

How did these decks ever win? Well all of their cards did damage. It didn’t matter how bad the cards themselves were, it just turned out that the strategy of dealing as much damage as you can as fast as you can is sometimes the best strategy to take.

If you compare this to the history of card advantage, legendary Brian Weissman was also brewing up high powered control decks as early as 1994(3), and wrote about why control and card advantage was such an effective tactic in a now famous Duelist article in 1996(4). My point being, the strategy of card advantage was a deep and well documented topic before aggressive strategies were even examined.

I mention all this not only to share some of the history of magic strategy writing, but also to stress that if these ideas seem naive or simplistic in our world of Boros Charm and Hazoret the Fervent, know that at the time they were written they were nothing short of revolutionary.

And Now, Back to Goblin Guide

Goblin Guide

Goblin Guide is arguably the best aggressive creature ever printed. Part of the reason it’s so effective, is because it was developed with an understanding of the cards role. Goblin Guide will very often put you behind on cards. For many creatures, this would be a quality that would make it unplayable, but in an aggressive red deck this doesn’t matter because it's doing its job so well.

We talked about aggressive strategies establishing a rate for their cards. The original rate given for the Philosophy of Fire was a Shock or two damage because red cards were not nearly as good then as they are now. Goblin Guide on the play will functionally always be at least a Shock, and it continues to be a shock for every turn it gets to attack. So while Goblin Guide gives your opponent a card off many of its attacks, it also gives you a Shock in Philosophy of Fire bucks, making it less like continual card disadvantage and more like a weird Howling Mine. Another way to think of Goblin Guide is, the more damage it deals to your opponent, the fewer burn spells you’ll need to draw to win the game.

Land, Crack Fetch, Take Two, I’m Conley Woods

Part of the reason Burn is such an effective strategy in modern is because of the fetch shock manabase. Every time an opponent fetches and shocks, they effectively give their opponent a free lightning bolt to the face. Most of the time this is good, as Lightning Bolts weren’t made to go to the face and most decks can’t really capitalize on this. For the burn player, however, this line is something like a reverse mulligan where they get to start with an extra card. Something to keep in mind next time you're casting Serum Visions on turn one.

An Opponent's Life in Cards

We’ve talked almost exclusively about hyper-aggressive decks so far, which is important because they are true “Philosophy of Fire decks.” Where the theory really starts to get interesting though, is when you realize you can apply it to everyday Magic situations. Much of this has to do with looking to set up lethal damage.

Imagine a board state in limited where you have three 2/2s and your opponent has a 5/5. If your opponent is a twenty life, you would probably just say "go" and continue on with the game--maybe they’ll attack and you can force a two for one trade down. If your opponent is at six, however, you instantly turn your cards sideways and trade off your material to set up a lethal attack next turn. What about the numbers between twenty and six?

There will come a point in many games where it will look like the longer things go on the worse they are liable to get. Maybe your opponent has an active planeswalker, maybe they are drawing two cards a turn, or maybe they are digging for a bomb rare you can’t possibly beat. In situations like this, card advantage goes out the window and all you care about is dealing lethal damage as fast as you can. When you look at your board of three 2/2s, ask yourself, is this 2/2 ever really going to do anything better than four damage right now. The situation doesn’t even necessarily need to be that desperate for this to be the case. The more you believe yourself to be racing against time the more of a Philosophy of Fire deck and the less of a card advantage deck you need to be.

Paying Life for Cards
(or I Only Regret That I Have but Twenty Life to Lose for my Card Draw)


Black often has access to cards that allow you to trade life for cards. The famous Necropotence was the bane of standard for most of its existence. (Argul's Blood Fast) in today's standard, while not nearly as powerful, has found a home in many sideboards.

Argul’s Blood Fast assigns a value of two life for an extra card. Whether or not this is worth it in today’s standard environment varies heavily based on your matchup. Against mono red for example, paying two life for a card is borderline suicidal (you’re basically giving them a Goblin Guide!). Against the U/W control deck with zero creatures, however, you can literally draw 9 extra cards without fear.

There are normal games of Magic where this effect is good as well, and again, these are the more interesting cases. The podcast Limited Resources(5) uses an idea called quadrant theory, that evaluates the merits of a card based on it’s strengths when: ahead, behind, developing, or at parity. Looking at Argul’s Blood Fast this way helps shed light on the exchange.

When developing, Argul’s Blood Fast is great; if you can cast it on turn two you will find yourself in great shape. Blood Fast is going to help you hit your land drops or spend excess mana in the developing turns. Because the game is just starting, you can afford to pay the life for the extra card quality and quantity Blood Fast gets you against all but the most aggressive decks.

When at parity, Blood Fast is also great. If the game is stalled out, and both players are fairly stable, being able to leverage some life for a few extra cards can very often put you in the lead.

When behind, Blood Fast is actually still pretty good, and has the most bearing on our Philosophy of Fire discussion. Say we’re playing, you and I are both top decking land, but I’m attacking you with a 3/3 every turn and now you are down to nine life. You basically just need to draw a spell to be in okay shape, and you naturaly draw a card every turn. So in a way, the game of Magic we’re playing says that for every three damage you take, you get to draw a card. Your goal in this situation is to draw an answer without dying. Paying two life for a card in this situation is actually great; it beats paying three life for a card and doesn’t allow me to kill you any faster than I normally would. Argul’s Blood Fast even flips into a card that gains you life. Say you find a 3/3 but I found a removal spell, the three life you gain off sacrificing that creature to Temple of Aclazotz, basically gained you a whole extra turn/card. This is one of the situations where gaining life is actually card advantage.

When ahead, Blood Fast is again pretty great. If you are already ahead, you probably aren’t under threat of dying and can comfortably pay life in order to keep your lead (and life total) secure, enabling you to draw more cards. This will often quickly spiral out of control, and provide a small taste of what it was like to Necro someone out in the good old days.

Doing More With Less

I briefly mentioned the U/W control deck in standard. If you aren’t familiar, this deck tries to establish control by making an Emblem with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria then decking their opponent--they use Teferi’s -3 to put itself on top of their deck over and over again until the opponent decks out (just as Dr. Garfield intended).

This deck is in every sense of the word a card advantage deck, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to the Philosophy of Fire, it just means it approaches it differently. This deck knows how many cards it needs to kill their opponent, and it’s one. As such, though this deck will spend most of its time fighting for card advantage, it will happily four for one itself if it means making a Teferi emblem. This is a unique thing about combo decks, particularly ones like storm; to them The Philosophy of Fire is about fighting for specific pieces of their game plan, rather damage (of course the best like Caleb Schercher know when to beat down with Goblin Electromancer).

Closing Out

Go for the Throat

The Philosophy of Fire can be a nebulous concept. I feel like I could fill a book with thoughts about card advantage, but I’m not sure how much more I would have to say about Philosophy of Fire. Like the dichotomy between intellect and emotion, the Philosophy of Fire is about feeling that the time is right to move in for the kill and closing out games as efficiently as possible. Of course, this often takes the form of well calculated plays and predictions, but each situation can be so unique, it’s harder to prescribe general rules. That said, I hope this article has done a good job of introducing you to some of the history and intricacies behind the Philosophy of Fire. I’ve footnoted several articles in this entry, and they are all worth a read and provide slightly different takes on some of the topics discussed above. I’d also highly recommend Mike Flores Philosophy of Fire article he wrote for the mothership, and Chapin’s The Theory of Everything (which is basically the opposite of an introduction, but frankly a remarkable piece of Magic writing; they can be found at endnotes 6 & 7 respectively).

Thanks for reading and until next time Fight with Fire.



(or On the Shoulders of Giants)


1: The History of Sligh by Dave Meddish


2: The Philosophy of Fire by Mike Flores


3: Old School Magic, Chapter 2 -- The History of “The Deck” by Steve Menendian


4: Taking Card Advantage by Brian Weissman


5: Limited Resources Podcast


6: Life and cards 1: Philosophy of Fire by Mike Flores


7: Innovations - The Theory of Everything by Patrick Chapin