Duel Decks- Venser vs Koth: Venser’s Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
Sooner or later in Magic, everything comes full circle. It is a game filled with variations upon repetition- note the many iterations of of Giant Growth that are made set after set after set- and yet it is those very variations that keep things fresh and engaging. Still, there are some constants in Magic, as there must be- the game only has five colours. We saw this circling back most recently with the Event Decks. The first Event Decks for Mirrodin Besieged were mono-Red and Blue/Green, and a series of mono-coloured decks followed. Each colour got their turn, then they looped around and began with another White deck and a multi-coloured one.
Now with this latest Duel Decks release, we see a similar looping around. Each colour has featured in a planeswalker-themed release, spanning a number of archetypes. While the first Duel Decks ever was 2007′s Elves vs Goblins, Jace vs Chandra hit the scene a year later and set the pattern- one release is tribal, the other planeswalker. As you’d expect, Jace vs Chandra featured Blue control against Red burn, and that’s a pattern we’re not far off the mark from today. Venser vs Koth gives us a pair of decks with the same underlying concept, though not without significant differences. The earliest Duel Decks didn’t always see their ‘walkers synch up with the deck in an airtight fit, but today we begin our review with one that sets the bar for doing precisely that.
Vanish with a Thought
The creature contingent in Venser’s service are largely focused around two central mechanics, with cards that enable each. The first group of creatures are your Saboteurs. In Magic, the term saboteur refers to a creature that gives you a special benefit when they deal combat damage to an opponent. Take, for instance, the Coral Fighters. A two-mana 1/1 isn’t all that interesting on its own, but each time these strike your opponent, you get to fateseal their library (look at the top card and opt to either keep it there or put it on the bottom). A reprint from Mirage, we;ve seen these as recently as our review of Burning Sky, and it’s always nice to see some old cards return. On a similar note we find a pair of Scroll Thieves. Originally from Magic 2011, these Merfolk cost slightly more, but in return they have a much bigger toughness and actually net you a card when they connect.
Also in this slot is the Slith Strider. The “Slith mechanic” is a holdover from the original Mirrodin, where this card came from, but it was interesting to see it make a comeback with the Vampires of Innistrad (see: Stromkirk Noble). If you can keep it alive for those first crucial early swings it becomes an all-upside combatant, getting bigger if it hits your opponent and drawing you a card if it’s blocked. As we see, none of these cards are especially powerful, at least in the beginning, so to maximise their chances of success Venser has recruited a few other allies with complementary abilities. Both the Minamo Sightbender as well as the Neurok Invisimancer can bestow unblockability to a creature- perfect for sneaking one of your saboteurs across enemy lines undetected. The Sightbender is perhaps a bit better suited to the task, since its ability can be used each turn. The Invisimancer, however, is no slouch- on its own, it is also unblockable and brings 2 power to the table. As we’ll see, however, things on this side of the table have a habit of disappearing only to reenter later, meaning that the Inivismancer might pull its trick off a few times before the battle is won.
Our next strategic aim are the Blinkers. Like the Saboteurs, you get a number of creatures working synergistically to abuse their special abilities. For the Blinkers, that involves creatures which have enters-the-battlefield abilities, and others that let you play them over and over, to make the most of their powers. These creatures tend to be a bit more on the expensive side, but as we’ll see their abilities certainly make up for the cost.
At two mana, the Augury Owl is something of an anomaly here, but it’s a great way to help you tinker with the top of your library thanks to its scry effect. If that’s not enough rearranging for you, you also have recourse to a Cryptic Annelid, a 1/4 creature that packs a huge scry effect. Once you start being able to flicker these in and out at will, your card draw quality will increase tremendously.
You also get a Kor Cartographer to help fetch you land, and if there’s one thing you don’t want to be against mono-Red burn, it’s struggling to hit your land drops. You also get a Primal Plasma. The Plamsa, from Planar Chaos, is an interesting creature that calls back to Antiquities’ Primal Clay. It’s worth noting that while this creature has no enters-the-battlefield trigger, its malleability lets it be a creature which best suits your needs of the moment. That means as your needs change, you can flicker it or return it to hand and reshape it to something more useful. For instance, early on against Koth you may want to invoke its defensive properties and form it into a 1/6 defender. As you stabilise the board and start to look at going on the attack, you can return it to hand with one of your enabler cards, then recast it as a 3/3 or 2/2 flying beater.
Moving up the scale, we come to Scars of Mirrodin’s Sunblast Angel. Given the deck’s tricks, the Angel is the kind of card that should put an evil grin on most any pilot’s face, for if you have the ability to flicker her you can absolutely punish your opponent for the affront of attacking you. As a 4/5 evasive body, she’ll also be a very solid attacking option. At the same cost but perhaps a bit less exciting we find Jedit’s Dragoons. While there are few times where lifegain is a viable tactical consideration, going up against mono-Red burn is the exception. Since Red often trades cards in hand for damage, it looks to throw efficiency to the wind and kill you quickly. If you can outlast those initial salvos, you can often stand a very good chance of taking the game. Lifegain gives you that extra cushion to do just that- and a 2/5 vigilant body doesn’t hurt, either.
Finally, we come to the top of the curve with the Sphinx of Uthuun, perhaps better known as the “Sphinx of Fact or Fiction.” If you can manage to get the mana to cast this brute, you should have the game well in hand- not just in raw card advantage, but also having a massive 5/6 body in the air. Still, while your opponent is praying to topdeck an answer to it, it certainly can’t hurt to resummon him when you can to net you more free cards- and to turn the screws just a little bit tighter.
Just as our Saboteurs had their helpers, so too do our Blinkers. In this case, we find a small group of creatures who like to help flicker your creatures. Take, for instance, the Mistmeadow Witch. Easy to cast thanks to her hybrid mana, she can flicker for the cost of four mana. It’s no small price to pay, but can be well worth it with the right creatures on the battlefield. Note too that she doesn’t care which banner her target marches under, meaning that she can just as easily dispatch a particularly troublesome blocker to help set up an attack.
Our next two cards take advantage of the gating mechanic: the Whitemane Lion and Sawtooth Loon. The gating mechanic, introduced in Planeshift, involves returning a creature to your hand as part of the casting of a creature, a ‘drawback’ which typically lowers its casting cost. When you can turn a drawback into an advantage, however, is when you can really get the most from a card. Planeshift’s own Sawback Loon gives you the best of both- a decent-sized evasive body, a return of one of your other creatures to hand (to be recast), and a two-card looting effect. The Lion has a far shorter pedigree- it hails from Planar Chaos- but is a cheap and easy way to affectthe return of a creature you’d like to resummon. Its flash makes it particularly handy for returning an endangered creature back to the safety of your hand- for instance, in response to one of Koth’s burn spells.
The last two cards here are a little more robust. The Galepowder Mage is a 3/3 aerial threat that blinks a creature whenever it attacks- again, a card useful both to abuse your own enters-the-battlefield creatures as well as to thin out your opponent’s defenses. The Cache Raiders, on the other hand, are about as straightforward as it gets. Attached to their healthy 4/4 bodies is a simple requirement: return a permanent back to your hand every turn. And if it comes to pass that you have no viable ability creatures to abuse, well, you can always pick up a land and replay it.
The four remaining creatures are here to round out the deck overall. Given how much of a bruising we’re anticipating from Koth, a Wall of Denial is never an unwelcome draw. With flying it can stop nearly anything thrown at it, and its shroud means that Koth can’t simply burn it away like a midmorning mist. Clone is a card that works well on a number of levels with the deck. It can enter the battlefield as a copy of any of your creatures, meaning you can essentially duplicate any enters-the-battlefield ability on anything you’ve managed to play. And like the Primal Plasma, you can return it to hand and recast it to be something else- tremendous versatility! The Sky Spirit- a Tempest reprint- is a simply 2/2 aerial body with first strike. Perhaps her greatest virtue is that she is both Blue and White, which becomes relevant once we begin looking at the noncreature cards in the deck. Finally, there’s a Windreaver, a reprint from Dissension. Although one of a number of cards significantly weakened with damage no longer going on the stack (the old trick was to pump it, swap its power/toughness, put damage on the stack, then swap back to keep it alive), it’s still a reasonably useful and versatile mana sink should you find yourself needing a place to put some later in the game.
Out of Sight
Like the creatures above, the noncreature cards here tend to fall into fairly broad categories as well. The first thing we’ll want to look at is removal, and unfortunately you don’t get a great deal of options here. Your best cards in this class are Path to Exile and Oblivion Ring, so you’ll want to be sure to use them judiciously. You also get a copy of Revoke Existence to deal with artifacts and enchantments. While not precisely removal, Vanish into Memory can serve some of the same purposes as removal, though its effect is transitory. Nevertheless, it has a wide variety of useful applications (and can be downright rude with a Windreaver in play), and youll seldom be at a loss for its employ.
You also get a trio of creature enhancements. Sigil of Sleep- originally from Urza’s Destiny- goes well with any creature that either is or can be unblockable, as you can seriously inconvenience your Koth-playing opponent by Unsummoning one of their creatures every turn. Steel of the Godhead’s benefits vary depending upon which colour of creature you place it upon, but this is where hybrid creatures like the Sky Spirit will truly shine. So enchanted, the Spirit would be a 4/4 unblockable lifelinker, an urgent must-solve threat for Koth. Finally, there’s an Angelic Shield. It gives all of your army a slight toughness bonus, and can be traded in for a spot Unsummon.
Beyond that you get some card drawing in Preordain (with some nifty new artwork), and a Fog effect with Safe Passage. Don’t forget too that you can blunt additional incoming damage by flickering your opponent’s creatures when they attack. A little extra lifegain gets fused with countermagic in a pair of Overrules, and of course you have Venser, the Sojourner. Reading through Venser’s abilities, it’s clear that this deck fits him hand in glove. He can help your Saboteurs become unblockable, flicker your Blinkers, and if you manage to go ultimate with him, you’ve all but won the game outright. This deck is quite well-constructed to synergise so strongly with its marquee card.
As mentioned before, as a two-colour deck going up against a mono-coloured one, you’ll want to be sure you manage to hit your land drops and get a solid mana base to work from before you become overwhelmed. Venser’s deck also gives you some extra mana-fixing options. Azorius Chancery, Sejiri Refuge, and Flood Plain can help you make sure you have adequate access to both colours, The remaining nonbasics are New Benalia and Soaring Seacliff. Although they do little to fix your mana, they do carry beneficial effects- just the sort of thing you’d like to return every turn with your Cache Raiders. And while we might have liked to see a Halimar Depths, well, the deck can’t have it all.
Overall, this looks like a real blast to play if you like these sort of intricate battle plans with cards that chain off of one another. As it happens, we do! Before we go to battle, however, we’ll next be crossing to the other side of table, and seeing how the other (mono-Red) half lives. See you in two days’ time!