Regionals Matchups: Ponza vs. TNN

By Tom Fowler

With Regionals looming close on the horizon, you’ll need to be armed with knowledge of the important matchups. Today, I’m going to give you something of a modern classic: the best deck in Standard, which also happens to be the biggest mana diesel in recent memory, against a deck that’s very adept at denying mana. Tooth and Nail wins games by resolving a nine-mana entwined Sorcery, and Ponza wins games by destroying lands and killing with a mix of creatures and burn.

First, the decks used in this 20-game testing session:

PonzaMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Slith Firewalker
3 Adamaro, First to Desire
3 Zo-Zu the Punisher
4 Arc-Slogger

2 Shock
4 Magma Jet
3 Seething Song
4 Stone Rain
4 Molten Rain
2 Demolish
3 Thoughts of Ruin

4 Chrome Mox
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
3 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
14 Mountain

TNNMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Solemn Simulacrum
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
1 Sundering Titan
1 Duplicant
1 Viridian Shaman
3 Eternal Witness

3 Sensei's Divining Top
4 Sylvan Scrying
3 Reap and Sow
3 Mindslaver
3 Oblivion Stone
4 Tooth and Nail
1 Rude Awakening

4 Urza'a Mine
4 Urza's Tower
4 Urza's Power Plant
10 Forest
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers

Note that this build of TNN predates Terry Soh’s Invitational list, which has proven very influential to the archetype. Apologies for the lack of a full sideboard, but my opponent doesn't remember his complete list. The Ponza list is one of my own design, and it will change by the end of the article. You’ll notice the heavy LD element in the deck, which is geared toward TNN. This particular build has less game against the random aggro decks of the field, but the list I’ll post at the end does a little better there. This was the build I had when we tested this matchup, though.

My playtesting partner for this matchup is a good player who has been on the Tour a few times, and recently came back to the game in Darksteel after being away for about three years. Incidentally, he came back when the first versions of Tooth were floating around, the ones which were G/R, ran Cloudpost, and usually won with a 20-point Fireball on turn five or six. We did 20 games in total, 10 before sideboarding and 10 after. To be fair, we alternated who went first regardless of who won the previous game. He’s playing TNN, and going first in the odd-numbered games.

Game 1: He mulligans to 6 on the play. My hand isn’t stellar, but I throw a couple Magma Jets at his face before starting the LD with a couple Molten Rains. I’m able to keep him from critical mass with his mana, and Adamaro is fat enough to end the game in a few swings. 1-0 Ponza.

This guy shows up a lot on turn 1
Game 2: Again, burn is my early play here, but this time, I get a Slith Firewalker to go with it. The LD doesn’t show up for me this game, apart from a singular Molten Rain, so I’m not able to threaten his mana at all. He goes into the single digits before getting the required mana and casting Tooth. 1-1.

Game 3: This was disheartening for Ponza. He mulligans to 5 and still wins the game. I’ve referred to Ponza as the “worst best deck” in the environment, and this game is a good showcase as to why that is: Ponza cannot win if it gets a mediocre draw. Other decks can recover from mediocre or even poor draws, as TNN did this game, showing its resiliency in bouncing back from a double mulligan. Ponza, however, has no such luck. If it doesn’t draw a mix of creature threats and land destruction, it invariably loses. With 10 targeted LD spells, one would think my chances of not drawing a single bloody one are pretty remote. Welcome to Ponza, friends, where math goes out the window, and the rough side of random always jumps up and bites you on the bottom. Anyway, I get him down to single digits again, but with no LD, he can assemble the mana and cast his eponymous sorcery. I was so bitter at my bad draw that I actually tried to race his Sundering Titan, but to no avail. 2-1 TNN.

By the way, after three games, I’ve drawn exactly zero Stone Rains.

Game 4: Slith Firewalker kicks things off, but he draws an irritating parade of Sakura-Tribe Elders and Eternal Witnesses. I’m once again light on land destruction, and he’s able to block my guys long enough to get to nine mana. We all know what happens at that point. 3-1 TNN, and still 0 Stone Rains for yours truly.

Game 5: I don’t have an early Firewalker this time, but I do drop an Adamaro on turn 2. This game, the deck decides to give me some spells which have “Destroy target land” in their text box, including the first Stone Rain of the matchup. Finally playing Stone Rain makes me feel like the best Ponza player EVAR. In reality, all I did was destroy a land, but it was my Beta Stone Rain, so I did it in a sexy old-school fashion. Adamaro was hitting him for 5 at a time thanks to my LD keeping cards in his hand, and I finally get one back in the W column. 3-2 TNN.

Game 6: Slith Firewalker kicks things off early again. I get some LD to go along with it this time, but he continually draws land-searching spells. My LD peters out, allowing him to assemble the Urzatron and spend a couple turns finding the Tooth and Nail he needs to kill me. 4-2 TNN.

Game 7: This game, I finally get all the Ponza components working. I have an early threat (Slith Firewalker), another source of damage (Zo-Zu the Punisher), enough LD to make a difference, and a potent late-game finisher (Arc-Slogger). The only damage I took was when I Shocked myself for playing my fifth land. 4-3 TNN.

Game 8: This was another frustrating game. I had early pressure from a Slith Firewalker, but he kept drawing lands and land searchers to combat my LD. Between the lands and searchers he drew, and all the times he activated his Sensei’s Divining Top, my land destruction was rendered ultimately pointless. It took him a while, during which I beat him down to 6, but he got the mana he needed and had been holding a Tooth for the entire game. 5-3 TNN.

Game 9: If the previous game was frustrating, this one was insulting. A deck like Ponza should be able to prevent a turn 4 Tooth and Nail. However, my only LD spells seen this game were Demolish and Thoughts of Ruin. The latter would have been spicy if I’d had one more turn, but he had everything he needed early and just cast Tooth on turn 4. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it. 6-3 TNN.

Game 10: This was another game where the deck worked like it should. I had threats and burn, and enough LD to let those go all the way while keeping him from what he needed to do. If Ponza drew like this all the time, I’d actually play it more. However, as I said above, it has severe trouble when it doesn’t get a good draw. This game, I had a good draw and everything fell into place. 6-4 TNN.

Free tip: Drawing LD is good vs. TNN
That’s the end of the pre-sideboard games. What have we learned so far? Unfortunately, not much that we didn’t know coming into this matchup. The key for Ponza is to keep the Tooth player from getting the mana he needs for his signature spell. With 10 targeted LD spells, plus 3 Thoughts of Ruin, this should be a fairly easy task. These ten games have shown that it is not. Despite the redundancy of multiple LD spells, there were times I couldn’t draw one to save my life. A couple games, one LD spell would have made the difference, but it just wasn’t there. If you can get an early threat and then nuke two or three lands, you should do well in this matchup. If not, you have a problem that you have to hope your sideboard will solve.

This is how I sideboarded: -2 Shock, -1 Thoughts of Ruin, +3 Sowing Salt. The reason is obvious: Sowing Salt makes the Urza lands nothing more than regular nonbasics. This forces the TNN player to get nine mana the hard way, and with the same 10 targeted LD spells, 2 Thoughts of Ruin still in the deck, and now 3 Sowing Salt in the mix, denying Tooth its mana should be easier.

My opponent sided like so: -3 Mindslaver, +3 Heartbeat of Spring. This is his attempt to win the sideboard war. He’s conceding that I’m going to destroy some lands, and even conceding losing the sauciness of the Urzatron to Sowing Salt. He still needs nine mana to win the game, but Heartbeat of Spring means he only needs five lands to get there. And with the land-searching and deck-digging abilities of TNN decks, getting five lands in play is not difficult. It’s a problem for him if I have something like Arc-Slogger on the board while he’s trying to get to his magic number of lands, but other threats are manageable.

A note about the Heartbeat plan, though: Some Red decks have tried to win back the sideboard war by playing Fireball. If you drop Heartbeat of Spring and expect to use it to ramp yourself up to Tooth mana in a turn or two, you might find a big ball of fire coming right at your dome first. I’m not sure how ubiquitous this strategy is, so you might want to find out if the Red players in your area are using it before you put your eggs in the Heartbeat basket.

Onto the post-sideboard games. Remember than TNN is still playing first in the odd-numbered games.

Game 11: I don’t see any Sowing Salts this game, but the LD I do get is enough. I have some early threats, but he has enough mana to play annoying creatures like Sakura-Tribe Elder, which, of course, gets him more mana when it jumps in front of a large, angry Slith Firewalker. I destroy some lands before Arc-Slogger comes down when he’s at 8. That’s game. 1-0 Ponza, 6-5 TNN overall.

Game 12: This is his life total this game: 20, 19, 17, 14, 10. Want to guess what it was? Let me just say that a turn 1 Slith Firewalker on the play is some good. Playing LD spells the next three consecutive turns, especially against a mana diesel like TNN, is even better. This is one of those games where you really don’t learn anything – a turn sequence of Firewalker, LD, LD, LD should win you just about any game – but it feels damn good to play it. I think this is the seduction of Ponza, actually: you play a game like this and it makes you think you excel at Magic: the Gathering trading card game. Then, you play another game, and you draw no LD and get squashed. The really good draws create a powerful allure, though. I have no idea how popular Ponza will be at Regionals, but I’ll wager a lot of folks who are playing it got sucked in by the really good draws. What they probably fail to realize is that Ponza needs good draws to win. 2-0 Ponza, 6-6 overall.

Game 13: This was another game that makes you feel like the King of the Universe when you play Ponza. I was on the draw this time, but I still had a Firewalker on the first turn, and again backed it up with LD spells on the next three turns. The third one this time was Sowing Salt, which made an already bad position for my opponent even worse. 3-0 Ponza, 7-6 Ponza overall.

Game 14: This was a terrible game for my opponent, as he kept a hand with no Green sources, but a complete Urzatron. But the third turn, he still hadn’t drawn his first Green source. Considering I made his Urzatron incomplete immediately, racing my Firewalker was going to be impossible without Green mana. 4-0 Ponza, 8-6 Ponza overall.

What is it about R&D making
1-cost artifacts that shove
sharp things in people's heads?
You’ll notice the Solemn Simulacrums in my opponent’s decklist. I asked him about those when we started playing this matchup. He agrees with me that TNN sometimes has difficulty finding the first Green mana. Many people play Talismans to offset this, but those are becoming increasingly vulnerable in Standard. Artifact hate is in many maindecks these days, and if it wasn’t before the rise of Pithing Needle, you can be sure it will at Regionals. Vine Trellis is a perfectly good man, and a fine blocker against early threats life Firewalker, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the first Green mana. My opponent opted for the Simulacrums because he feels that Talismans crowd the 2-drop slot too much, and you’d rather play an Elder or a Sylvan Scrying there. His rationale is that playing Jens on turn 3 guarantees you at least one Green by turn 4, and you should have drawn or Topped into another by then. I’m still not sure I like Solemn Simulacrum in the deck, but I do think his reasoning is sound. He's also less concerned about the first-Green-mana problem than I am.

Game 15: He has to double-mulligan on the play here, and that spells bad times. Ever since sideboarding, Ponza has been good to me, and this game is no exception. Already down two cards, he’s sunk when I get LD to support yet another early Slith Firewalker. Interestingly enough, I played some games with Ponza against Beacon Green the other day, and I had early Sliths a lot in that matchup, too. 5-0 Ponza, 9-6 Ponza overall.

Game 16: The Ponza gods were smiling on me this day, as I played yet another first turn Slith Firewalker. And again, I had the LD to support it. He wasn’t playing out many Urza lands this game, so I was picking off his Forests. There was one turn where he had an Urza land and an Okina in play. I cast Molten Rain and thought about my target for a minute. He takes the 2 damage either way, so that’s not a consideration. Hitting the Urza land makes it harder for him to assemble an Urzatron, but he hadn’t played many of them this game, so he was probably hoarding them in his hand. Destroying the Okina keeps him off of Green, not just for Tooth and Nail but for Heartbeat of Spring. He had five of his deck’s 10 Forests in the graveyard already. I opted to destroy the Okina, and he never saw a Green source the rest of the game. I know Molten Rain usually gets pointed at the Urza lands (as does most LD), but don’t just automatically do that. Consider the lands your opponent has played so far this game, which ones you’ve already destroyed, and how those are going to affect his decisions. In this situation, I would have destroyed the Okina had it been a basic Forest, just to keep him off the Green mana. There are situations where you’ll want to think about your target for your LD spell, so make sure you do. 6-0 Ponza, 10-6 Ponza overall.

Game 17: All good things must come to an end. Just like the Briana Banks movie marathon can’t go on forever, neither could my winning streak. This game was very uneventful, with me mulliganing into a so-so hand. Unfortunately, he had a Sakura-Tribe Elder out before I got my Slith Firewalker this game, so the early damage was negated. I wasn’t able to put any pressure on him, and the disruption I had wasn’t enough to overcome that. Tooth resolved, and I lost. 6-1 Ponza, 10-7 Ponza overall.

Lands don't always
go to the bottom... Frown
Game 18: This may have been the best game we played, and it turned on a single poor decision by yours truly. I resolved a Magma Jet and wanted to start destroying lands, so I kept a Stone Rain on top while putting a Blinkmoth Nexus on the bottom. Sure enough, I was able to destroy some lands. However, I was land-light myself, stalling on four with a pair of Arc-Sloggers in my hand. If I’d kept the Nexus as the second card, I would have still had a good bit of LD, and I would have been able to play Sir Slogs-a-Lot much earlier. However, I stalled on 4 mana and let him climb back into the game. Fortunately for me, all his Topping hadn’t found him a Tooth by this point, and I finally got my fifth land for Slogger. Unfortunately, a Tooth turned up at just the right moment, and a hasty twin of Darksteel Colossus did me in. I got him down to 2, but didn’t have enough cards left to Slog him out. All my Magma Jets were gone, so my only out was Molten Rain. I’ve killed people with Rancid Earth before, so that would have been fine with me. Alas. 6-2 Ponza, 10-8 Ponza overall.

Game 19: He mulligans to six, but that doesn’t set him back much. I draw just enough LD to let him stay in the game without taking it over, but I’m light on threats. Adamaro was OK for a turn or two, but he became too small to be a real threat. Sowing Salt removes his chances of getting the Urzatron online, and there’s been no Heartbeat sighting. Finally, I rip an Arc-Slogger, and the electric beast quickly takes control of the game. 7-2 Ponza, 11-8 Ponza overall.

Game 20: Magma Jet and Molten Rain are my early damage sources, and then I finally get one I can turn sideways in Slith Firewalker. Sowing Salt again keeps the Urzatron from becoming a threat, but this time, he plays Heartbeat of Spring. I have five lands and a Mox in play and he’s at 8, with a Tribe Elder to block my Slith. He’ll be able to cast Tooth next turn. My top card is . . . Arc-Slogger. How lucky. 8-2 Ponza, 12-8 Ponza overall.

So what did we learn from the sideboarded games? Well, I think we got the obvious lesson that a Slith Firewalker on the first turn, followed by land destruction the next three turns, is quite the spicy meatball. Of course, a brain-dead gorilla could have deduced that before the matchup began. One important observation we can draw is that Urza lands should not automatically be the targets of your LD spells. Especially if your opponent is on the Heartbeat of Spring plan, he’ll play out more Green sources early and try to keep his Urza lands safe in his hand. Destroy those Green sources. If you can keep him from Heartbeat mana, do it. Remember the choice I had to destroy the Okina or the Urza land with Molten Rain. Thinking it out showed that Okina was the clear choice, and a Forest in the same situation would have been just as clear. Urza lands are tempting targets for LD because of their potential to make a lot of mana, and destroying them first is usually right, but make sure you look for the situation where it’s not right. Don’t have blinders on just because your opponent is playing Urza lands.

Overall, in this matchup, Ponza must destroy lands and play threats to win. If you just have threats, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to kill your opponent before he can get his nine mana and cast Tooth and Nail. If you just have LD, you’re going to run out at some point, and with no threat on the board, you give your opponent time to get his mana back on track and cast TNN. An early Slith Firewalker can go a long way in this matchup. Zo-Zu is also a good threat, since he punishes the Tooth player for fetching the lands he needs. Make sure you mulligan aggressively in this matchup. If you don’t have at least one LD spell and at least one threat in your opening hand, send it back.

Earlier in the article, I mentioned a new Ponza list. The reason for this is that the list I played the matchup with has game against Tooth, but has a bad matchup against aggro decks. We played a few games of Ponza against a standard White Weenie deck after the TNN games were done, and Ponza took it on the chin to the tune of 1-4 in five games. While it’s reasonable to expect Tooth and Nail to show up in numbers at Regionals, you also can’t afford to pack it in against the aggro decks. Some people will miss the memo that White Weenie has been stains since about 1998 and they’ll play it at Regionals. You don’t want to lose to them.

Updated PonzaMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Slith Firewalker
3 Zo-Zu the Punisher
4 Vulshok Sorcerer
4 Arc-Slogger

4 Magma Jet
1 Shatter
4 Stone Rain
4 Molten Rain
3 Seething Song
2 Demolish
3 Thoughts of Ruin

4 Chrome Mox
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
1 Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep
16 Mountain

Let’s go over some of the choices:

Fastest Tim Ever: Having a set of Vulshok Sorcerers maindeck gives you a lot more game against aggro decks. The majority of White’s weenies die to a Sorcerer before Glorious Anthem comes out. Insect tokens made by Beacon of Creation get mowed down nicely. Sorcerers are also good for killing Birds of Paradise, which makes them equivalent to an LD spell against Green decks running Birds, which is to say virtually all Green decks.

This guy rides the pine
omg ur not playnig harth kami!!!!11: Indeed I am not. I’m just not that impressed with Hearth Kami. His small butt makes him an unreliable beater, especially with Sakura-Tribe Elder all over the place, infinite x/1 creatures in WW, and Wood Elves becoming more popular in Beacon Green. As artifact removal, he’s all right, but that’s it. If you need to destroy an artifact and he’s in your hand, that’s an expensive proposition. I’d rather play Shatter for artifact removal, since it costs 2 no matter what the artifact costs. Let’s face it, you’re not going to blow up Mindslaver with the Kami, and even blowing up a Sword of Fire and Ice gets expensive. Also, with the expected ubiquity of Pithing Needle, Hearth Kami can be shut down by a 1-drop artifact, while Shatter has no such concerns.

Thoughts of Ruin stays, Adamaro goes: Adamaro was just not very impressive. If you could get him out on the second turn and then play a few LD spells, he was great, but those are games you should win anyway. There’s also the fact that he’s awful in the mid-to-late game. With Adamaro leaving, you can also bid adieu to Mikokoro, Center of the Sea. While it's not a bad card on its own, the perk of having it in the deck was it made Adamaro bigger. That is no longer a concern. Thoughts of Ruin can be a nice finisher. If you get a Slith on turn 1, you can Thoughts on the third or fourth turn and make sure your Slith goes all the way. Sometimes, an aggressive Ponza draw will cause you to dump your hand fast enough to make Thoughts a bad Epicenter. Other times, though, it will lock up the game for you. I don’t think that kind of power can be ignored. You can safely board it out against the aggro decks, of course.

If you find that a lot of Tooth decks in your area are going with the Heartbeat of Spring plan out of the sideboard, stake your claim to win back the sideboard war by swapping out the Pulses of the Forge for Fireball. If you have five or six lands in play when they play Heartbeat, Fireball should win you the game right there.

Whatever you choose to play at Regionals, good luck. If you go with Ponza, may all your draws be as silly as mine were in games 12 and 13.

-Tom Fowler


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