Dangerous Propositions: Punishing Fire
The Modern ban list is a maximum-security prison with 33 inmates, some of which pose a potentially serious threat to the meta. But now that Big Jace is free, anything can happen. Let's review each of the offenders to see if they're eligible for parole. This time, we talk of the burn spell that won't stay away.
Punishing Fire is a soft combo card for aggro decks. Along with its partner in crime Grove of the Burnwillows, it creates repeatable double damage for every three mana spent on it, of which two must be red. While this makes it too slow and unreliable for proper control decks (which rarely overcommit to red so much anyway), and certainly inefficient for Burn, it's a perfect instrument for wiping the board clean of two-toughness creatures to help our creatures to connect.
When Punishing Fire was banned at the end of 2011, just a few months into existence in Modern, the reason for the action was put strictly in relation with the other card being banned at that time, Wild Nacatl. Both were key features of Zoo decks, the best aggro lists of that early era. At the 2011 World Championship from the previous November, there were tons of Zoo lists ending the weekend with 12 or 15 points. Even a few combo decks, like Splinter Twin or Gifts Ungiven / Unburial Rites, incorporated the Fire/Grove interaction as a further line of protection, despite, at least in the former's case, often not caring for access to green mana too much.
|4Arid Mesa||4Knight of the Reliquary||4Lightning Bolt|
|2Forest||4Noble Hierarch||2Lightning Helix|
|4Grove of the Burnwillows||2Qasali Pridemage||4Path to Exile|
|1Horizon Canopy||4Tarmogoyf||4Punishing Fire|
|4Misty Rainforest||4Wild Nacatl||2Elspeth, Knight-Errant|
|2Ancient Grudge||2Combust||1Elspeth, Knight-Errant|
|2Lightning Helix||2Qasali Pridemage||1Relic of Progenitus|
|3Rule of Law||2Sword of Feast and Famine|
|Punishing Zoo by Sveinung Bjørnerud, 19 November 2011|
A Legacy of Punishment
While the cat came back three years later to no particular impact, Punishing Fire never did. Some claim it could be a fair enough card to unban now in a format that's wildly different from the one where the fire of punishment used to spread seven years ago. I, for one, am not so sure if that fire wouldn't burn exceedingly bright once again. After all, recursive removal still sounds like a scary prospect even if it only affects small creatures. Besides, for six mana, you get to kill a bigger guy at instant speed. It's the same deal that Fireblast gives you when you don't pay the alternative cost. Sure, you play Fireblast exclusively due to that alternative cost, but it doesn't have a built-in buyback nor the versatility to scale up and down.
The fact that Punishing Fire is still good enough for Legacy should also give us pause. And I'm not just talking of specialized fringe builds like Lands. The card still shows up in both control lists…
|1Badlands||4Baleful Strix||3Dack Fayden|
|1Bayou||3Snapcaster Mage||2Jace, the Mind Sculptor|
|1Bloodstained Mire||1Leovold, Emissary of Trest||4Brainstorm|
|3Grove of the Burnwillows||1Fatal Push|
|2Island||1Inquisition of Kozilek|
|1Tropical Island||1Diabolic Edict|
|3Underground Sea||3Punishing Fire|
|2Volcanic Island||1Kolaghan's Command|
|4Force of Will|
|2Surgical Extraction||1Abrupt Decay||2Hymn to Tourach|
|1Liliana of the Veil||1Liliana, the Last Hope||1Pernicious Deed|
|1Pulse of Murasa||1To the Slaughter||1Notion Thief|
|4-Color Control, November 2018|
…and aggro lists.
|1Badlands||1Dryad Arbor||3Liliana of the Veil|
|1Barren Moor||4Dark Confidant||2Green Sun's Zenith|
|2Bayou||1Gaddock Teeg||3Abrupt Decay|
|1Cabal Pit||1Scavenging Ooze||1Assassin's Trophy|
|1Forest||4Knight of the Reliquary||2Life from the Loam|
|1Ghost Quarter||3Punishing Fire|
|3Grove of the Burnwillows||4Chalice of the Void|
|1Maze of Ith||1Sylvan Library|
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Burn Them
Decks like those above might not have direct counterparts in Modern, but they suggest such a wide range of applications that it becomes easy to picture Punishing Fire reigniting left and right. It can even go far beyond its original employ. We can start by just looking at the places where its old pal Wild Nacatl is showing up these days. Zoo is not really a thing in Modern anymore; Jund doesn't seem to care for the feline one-drop, now that it has small wonders like Grim Flayer and Tireless Tracker to build up to. (It's also worth noting that both die to a well-timed Punishing Fire.) There is, however, a semi-popular version of Death's Shadow that enjoys Nacatl's superior speed. I bet a list like the next one would find room for some recursive Shock and wouldn't mind using a red-green dual that doesn't cause any tempo loss.
|1Blood Crypt||4Death's Shadow||3Lightning Bolt|
|3Bloodstained Mire||4Monastery Swiftspear||4Mutagenic Growth|
|1Godless Shrine||3Tarmogoyf||1Apostle's Blessing|
|1Overgrown Tomb||4Street Wraith||4Temur Battle Rage|
|1Stomping Ground||3Become Immense|
|4Verdant Catacombs||4Mishra's Bauble|
|1Faith's Shield||1Grafdigger's Cage||1Lightning Bolt|
|2Surgical Extraction||1Abrupt Decay||2Ancient Grudge|
|2Collective Brutality||3Lingering Souls||2Phyrexian Unlife|
|Death Zoo, November 2018|
The verdict is unclear. Do we want to risk rekindling the embers of such a powerful card advantage? I'm aware the continuing ban of Punishing Fire feels inconsequential in a format that's still allowed to do vastly crazier things than dealing two damage for three mana again and again. But it's "again and again" that is the key here. This is an inextinguishable flame we're talking about. It's a low-key, inherently infinite combo that doesn't take too many slots and has always at least one eligible target. Plus, who's to say that Grove of the Burnwillows is not going to combo with something else of comparable worth down the line?
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.
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