The Devil is in the Details

Written by Joshua Justice on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Modern

The recently-spoiled Vexing Devil is a card which has prompted a great deal of debate on the internet. The opinions range from people calling it utterly unplayable to people declaring that it’s completely broken. Both of these views are inaccurate and seem to stem from a limited experience with Red archetypes or how to play against them

How to Play Vexing Devil

To maximize the quality of Vexing Devil, the goal should be to build the deck and make your plays so that the choice is rendered irrelevant: whether they choose to let you have a 4/3 or choose to take 4, they should lose either way. This needs to be kept in mind at all times when making card selections for the deck. If the deck cannot make this happen, then Vexing Devil is likely a poor fit. It is important to remember that certain sideboarding decisions may also weaken the Devil, and in these situations it is worth considering sideboarding the card out of the deck.

Similarly, when playing the deck, the early plays should be sequenced to maximize the value of Vexing Devil, especially when it is in the opening hand. Fortunately, this means playing it later rather than earlier, so a Devil drawn on turn 2 isn’t a bad thing. The turn one play should be a 1-drop creature other than Devil. This benefits you twofold: when you play a turn-one Vexing Devil, your opponent should almost always take 4. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad deal, but it means all possibility of getting multiple hits from the Devil is gone. Furthermore, your other 1-drop gets one less turn to deal damage.

It’s not really that it‘s a terrible thing for the Devil to deal 4 damage. In fact, getting Devil to deal 4 damage consistently is the better goal by far than trying to bait your opponent into letting you have the 4/3 when he shouldn’t. The problem with leading with Vexing Devil is that it’s a bad idea to lead with Lava Spike, and when you play Devil turn one; you’re really just leading with a better Lava Spike.

Compare that to what happens if you’re playing Modern and lead with a Goblin Guide turn one and follow that with a Vexing Devil on the second turn post-combat. Here, your opponent is left with the ugly choice of going to 12 when you’ve got 4-5 cards in hand or letting you have a 4/3 to stay at 16. Depending on a creature as a blocker here would expose the opponent to serious danger from any removal spell and a complete blowout from Searing Blaze. This is basically the ideal situation to minimize the drawback of the Punisher mechanic – the opponent is in serious trouble regardless of which option he or she chooses.

Red Deck What?!

Now that we’ve established a base for how we want to play Vexing Devil, we have to figure out what kind of deck we want to build to establish those kinds of plays consistently. The problem here is that when reading people’s descriptions of red decks, the general summary of it is this: “Ponza is a red deck with land destruction. Sligh is a red deck with cheap creatures. Goblins is the tribal deck. Everything else is Red Deck Wins, and Big Red was a thing when Seething Song was around.” (Frequently, you’re lucky if you even get anything other than the first 3.)

In truth, Red decks should not be analyzed in such narrow categories, since they exist along a spectrum of fire. The spectrum has a few axes, such as:

* BurnLava Spike, Lightning Bolt, Hellspark Elemental
* Creature RemovalFlame Slash, Lightning Bolt
* CreaturesFigure of Destiny, Goblin Guide
* Repeating Damage Sources (Non-Combat)Cursed Scroll
* Mana DenialStone Rain
* Mana Curve – affects your final land/spell ratio
* Artifact Destruction (When Relevant)Shatter
* HasteGoblin Guide, Goblin Bushwhacker, Koth of the Hammer

Note that many cards can find themselves in multiple categories. Molten Rain and Searing Blaze are all-stars in this aspect. Lands that have a way of dealing damage, such as Teetering Peaks and Barbarian Ring are extremely potent in red archetypes. For instance, the original Sligh deck had 25 creatures and a Black Vise, giving it 26 total repeating damage sources. It had Strip Mines to serve as mana denial, a Shatter and a Detonate as artifact destruction (and burn for the latter). Incinerates and Lightning Bolts served as both burn and creature removal.

A Vexing Devil deck wants to be loaded up on burn and creatures to take advantage of the fact that Vexing Devil gives the opponent a choice between both. It does not want to be diluted with Stone Rain, Shatter, and other cards which do nothing to further the main game plan and make the opponent’s choice easier. Furthermore, a Vexing Devil deck cannot lean too heavily in one direction or the other. If it has too much burn, it’ll simply be the only creature and Devil will just be a 1 mana dude that dies to Doom Blade. If the deck has too many creatures, the opponent will either allow it to resolve only to hit it by a sweeper or the opponent will take 4 rather than let you establish an overwhelming board position.

Legacy

In Legacy, the most popular Red archetype is commonly called Stupid Red Burn since it is a deck with very few creatures and a huge pile of burn to the face. This is the archetypical Lava Spike deck. It plays 4 Lightning Bolt, 4 Rift Bolt, 4 Chain Lightning, and 4 Lava Spike before it even considers playing creatures, and the goal of the deck is just to throw burn to the opponent’s face. Goblin Guide and Figure of Destiny are the primary creatures in this deck, with Hellspark Elemental acting mainly as a Flashback burn spell. Creatures are viewed as nothing more than a repeatable source of damage and whether or not they maintain a meaningful board presence is largely irrelevant. In this archetype, the opponent will typically have more removal spells than they need to handle your small creature base. Furthermore, Goblin Guide has issues with common Legacy creatures such as Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze, so opposing removal is often only needed on Figure of Destiny. As such, this deck is a poor choice for Vexing Devil since the opponent will frequently let the Devil resolve. They can simply use their spot removal on it. The choice was made easy and the card was rendered irrelevant.

In fact, Stupid Red Burn’s ability to simply blank opposing removal is one of the points in its favor. As a result, all the burn spells in this deck are better than Vexing Devil. The most likely card Vexing Devil would replace would be Keldon Marauders- but removing that card dilutes the creature base to a point where Vexing Devil would just consistently eat removal and run into bigger Tarmogoyfs.

Standard

Standard red decks tend to look more like the traditional Sligh-style deck than they do the Burn deck due to the format lacking the needed critical mass of burn to be able to stuff 40 or so playable cards that go to the dome into one deck. The mana curve may be a little higher or a little lower depending on what’s available in this year’s format, but it is typically just a pile of creatures and burn plus a small number of bonus finishers at the high end. Recent finishers are cards like Koth of the Hammer in last year’s Standard format and Hellrider in Innistrad block constructed.

Vexing Devil (and Red in general) doesn’t seem to be a good choice in a world of Midnight Haunting, Lingering Souls, and Timely Reinforcements. Even once Timely Reinforcements are gone with the rotation, the heavy token theme of Innistrad block means Devil will likely spend its time running into 1/1 Spirits and Humans rather than dealing 4 damage one way or the other.

Modern

Modern is a format which has not yet been fully explored, though the recent PTQ season has given us an excellent starting point. The card pool is larger, which means it is considerably more feasible for us to build a deck which will maximize Vexing Devil’s ability to ruin the opponent’s day regardless of which option they choose.

Keep in mind, the modern Sligh-style deck is not the ideal choice for Vexing Devil. A deck stuffed full of cheap creatures, which primarily uses burn as creature removal or reach, fails to consistently render the “Punisher” choice irrelevant. The opponent will gladly opt to let the creature resolve if he or she has the board under control or a removal spell at the ready; whereas if the board is not under control the opponent will opt to take 4 in order to avoid taking multiple hits from the Devil. While occasionally your opponents will take 4 when they shouldn’t, and it will give you a win you wouldn’t get otherwise, cards that aren’t dependent on your opponent making a misplay would be preferred here.

Decklist!

Consider this rough skeleton, then, as a starting point. It is not intended to be a tier one Modern deck (in fact, it is likely not good enough to see serious play as-is), but rather to provide an example of the kind of deck that would be able to support Vexing Devil as a card.

The first thing to note is that all the creatures are 1-drops to allow them to lead into Devil+Burn (or Devil+Figure pump) on turn 2. Figure of Destiny and Stromkirk Noble both weaken the opponent’s ability to depend on removal to keep Vexing Devil in check, since letting Devil resolve to use removal on it means not having the removal for those creatures. Grim Lavamancer is more of a long-game creature, but he’s too good not to play, and draws removal fairly well. Additionally, Hellspark Elemental can draw a Path to Exile on its first trip to the battlefield, so it can help out somewhat.

As you can see here, the high creature density for what could misleadingly be called a “burn” deck strongly limits the opponent’s ability to simply let you have a 4/3 instead of taking 4 from Vexing Devil. This is the goal- the more consistently you can get Devil to be a better Lava Spike, the better. The more meaningful he is as a creature when your opponent doesn’t take 4, the better. This deck aims to achieve both objectives.

Look Ma, No Shrine!

The observant reader will notice that this list does not have Shrine of Burning Rage. This is not an omission. It seems incredibly difficult if not impossible to build a deck to support both Shrine and Devil. It may be that a Shrine-supporting deck is better than a Devil-supporting deck. It certainly would be slower, as it’s positioned higher on the mana curve.

Shrine of Burning Rage is an undeniably powerful card, but the problem with Shrine is that it has a high amount of tension with creatures in a red deck – you want to drop the creatures on turn 2 so they can get through more damage; but you also want to drop the Shrine on turn 2 to maximize the counters on it. This pulls the deck in multiple directions and makes it less efficient. While this was acceptable last year in Standard’s smaller card pool and slower format, it would be problematic in a faster format with higher-quality creatures.

Consider an opening hand that forces you to choose between Shrine and Devil:

Mountain, Mountain, Figure of Destiny, Vexing Devil, Shrine of Burning Rage, Lightning Bolt, Lava Spike

You’re on the play. Turn one you play Mountain, Figure. Your opponent plays Plains.
Turn 2 you draw a Grim Lavamancer. What play do you make here?

Devil line A is to attack, pump Figure, and play Devil in the second main phase.
Devil line B is to attack, not pump, play Devil and Lavamancer in the second main.
The Shrine line is to attack, not pump, and play Shrine in the second main phase.

Devil line B can be swiftly eliminated – it puts 1 fewer counter on Shrine than line A, and deals one less damage this turn while exposing Lavamancer to removal for no real reason.

Devil line A and the Shrine line both have their merits and drawbacks, but more importantly, the lines of play behave in fundamentally different manners! Shrine decks frequently play in a bizarre manner, dealing very little early on then doing 10 or more points of damage in a single fatal blow from Shrine. A Vexing Devil deck will aim to consistently reduce its opponent’s life total by 3-7 points from turn 2 onwards. Taking a turn off from that consistent application of burn to play a Shrine cripples the damage output of the Devil deck and it ends up being worse at both halves than a deck built for one or the other.

This is precisely what has to be considered when building a Vexing Devil deck. It constrains your options when deckbuilding to a narrow band with little other than creatures and burn. Even sideboarding options must be carefully handled to maintain this. Smash to Smithereens is preferred to Shattering Spree, Flamebreak and Earthquake are preferable to Firespout, and so on.

While it remains to be seen whether Vexing Devil decks are good enough to see play in any format, it is clear that there is a potential home for the card. Options do exist which allow the card to see play. The question is whether a metagame will exist that allows a deck like that to see a meaningful amount of play.

Joshua Justice

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