You Shall Not Heal: The Skullcrack Story
Burn is possibly the oldest strategy in the game, dating back to the wild times of "all bolts" decks. Lifegaining is the natural enemy of Burn and Skullcrack is the natural enemy of life gain. But there are others and Kumagoro divulges their short and fascinating history here.
The reason Skullcrack is a great card is that it was designed expressly to do what the deck that wants to play it needed: a slightly more expensive Lightning Bolt able to counter spells or triggers that negates the effect of said bolt, bringing burn one step closer to winning the race. It's all that matters with Burn. Most of the times, you're not playing an interactive game, you're just racing an invisible countdown that starts at 20 and could be set back at any moment, and if it happens too many times, that's it, you lose. It's not even a question of sideboarding lifegaining tech in game two, though that's also going to factor in. So many builds incidentally main deck anti-burn elements these days, from Kitchen Finks to Courser of Kruphix, and from Siege Rhino to Scavenging Ooze, not to mention Daybreak Coronet. Each of these cancels at least one of your bolts, probably more. This is where our Skullcracks come to the rescue.
Here's what a Modern Burn deck featuring a full playset of Skullcracks looks like:
Felipe Pincelli's Burn, Grand Prix Sao Paulo 2018, 11th Place
|4Arid Mesa||4Goblin Guide||4Lava Spike|
|2Inspiring Vantage||2Grim Lavamancer||4Lightning Bolt|
|2Mountain||4Eidolon of the Great Revel||4Boros Charm|
|3Sacred Foundry||4Lightning Helix|
|3Scalding Tarn||4Searing Blaze|
|4Wooded Foothills||3Flames of the Blood Hand|
|2Path to Exile||2Deflecting Palm||3Destructive Revelry|
|1Pyroclasm||4Searing Blood||3Ensnaring Bridge|
You can see another, more expensive (mana-wise) card with a similar effect in this list. Not all the Burn builds play that one. But how many cards are there with wordings such as "players can't gain life" or "if a player would gain life, that player gains no life instead"? Not many. In fact, there's only other twelve besides Skullcrack. Let's review them all, chronologically.
1. Forsaken Wastes (Mirage, 1996)
The mechanic's originator. And it's a nasty piece of business because, compared to another enchantment we'll meet further down the list that causes the same board state, this one also actively produces damage, and if dealt with, that's five points we've scored in the race (barring some Tranquility). I bet Modern Burn decks would play it if it were legal in the format. Unfortunately, it isn't.
2. Sulfuric Vortex (Scourge, 2003)
Scratch that, if this one was legal in Modern, it would make Burn players happy. It does the same as above for the same converted mana cost, but it's in red, and it's a Shock per turn. Reciprocal, sure, but that's true of Eidolon of the Great Revel, too.
3. Flames of the Blood Hand (Betrayers of Kamigawa, 2005)
We enter Modern territory, finding immediately something that do see play; in fact, it's the Skullcrack redundancy from the list above. One more mana, one more damage; slower, harder to keep constantly ready to surprise the opponent at the right moment, but still a good deal. It's the first case of instant-speed lifegain-negation effect, eight years before Skullcrack would see the light of day in Gatecrash. Grafting this kind of hosing directly onto a burn spell changed the approach entirely.
4. Everlasting Torment (Shadowmoor, 2008)
This is the new take on Forsaken Wastes I was talking about, though it can be played in monored as well. Problem is, it doesn't do anything except altering the flow of life, and Burn won't spend an entire turn casting something that's not immediately consequential. Universal wither is not relevant enough (Soul-Scar Mage does the same thing, while also swinging for damage and synergizing with the rest of the deck, and all for just one mana).
5. Stigma Lasher (Eventide, 2008)
Shadowmoor block was a particularly good fit for the Skullcrack effect, and it debuts the first creature to uphold the mechanic. Not a bad card at all, actually, since it's a bear that permanently scars the opponent if it manages to connect, which is not beyond the realm of possibility for a two-drop. Plus, it has wither, so it's good in combat. If it doesn't show up more, or at all, it's just because there are better options for RDW on turn two (like, Skullcrack!), and not because of some inherent flaw.
6. Leyline of Punishment (Magic 2011, 2010)
It would be a strictly worse Everlasting Torment, if it hadn't the Leyline mechanic. But even with that being the case, you need to run a full set to increase the odds of dropping it on the battlefield for free, and then the other copies become terrible draws. It could be a decent sideboard card against extreme lifegaining decks, if the sideboard weren't limited to 15 cards.
7. Havoc Festival (Return to Ravnica, 2012)
Not really a Skullcrack card, more like some oddity on a junk rare. It's comical that it can't even manage to kill anybody, because it rounds up.
8. Skullcrack (Gatecrash, 2013)
Our wonder boy. I love that the character in the art, the one who cracks the other guy's skull, is called Blunk.
9. Erebos, God of the Dead (Theros, 2013)
Erebos is a good card. Everything he does is worth doing, and his lifegain hosing is even one-sided (to combo with Whip of Erebos, clearly). He still shows up occasionally in moderately successful builds in Modern. Of course, he has pretty much nothing to do with Burn.
10. Witch Hunt (Commander 2013, 2013)
Third lifegain negator to come out in 2013, this time outside Modern's reach. In 1v1 it's a supercharged Sulfuric Vortex.
11. Atarka's Command (Dragons of Tarkir, 2015)
This is probably the most prestigious card in the list after Skullcrack. The Dragonlord Commands cycle of modal spells was solid in general, with Kolaghan's Command (aka Improved Blightning) as the spearhead. Atarka's is cheaper but suitable in RDW builds already splashing green for Destructive Revelry, and with enough creatures to give meaning to the boost mode. Otherwise it's just a Skullcrack that's slightly harder to cast, though that's still good for redundancy.
12. Rampaging Ferocidon (Ixalan, 2017)
It's basically Sulfuric Vortex on legs. Even more against creature-heavy decks, and considering it also swings for 3 with menace. For getting itself banned in Standard, this little guy must have been doing something right. Too bad Modern hasn't warmed up to him yet.
13. Archfiend of Despair (Battlebond, 2018)
All right, this is just a larger-than-life mega-finisher. It costs 8 and swings for 12! No wonder it comes from a multiplayer expansion.
The only truly playable cards in Modern are a) Skullcrack, b) Flames of the Blood Hand, c) Atarka's Command, and they're all played to some degree. Although I'd like to see Rampaging Ferocidon get some more love. Maybe even Stigma Lasher. Its "stigmatizing" ability is quite unique.
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