Zendikar: Pumped Up Review (Part 2 of 2)
It was with a certain amount of dread that I squared off against Sam to test the Pumped Up deck, having seen her drag the box for The Adventurers over to her side of the table. In general, Wizards does a very good job of balancing the preconstructed decks within a release, but The Adventurers has had a certain reputation at our table for being the brute of the litter. Although underwhelmed by Pumped Up in our initial review, I was also keen to see how it fared against so worthy an adversary. Here are the notes from this epic engagement.
The first creature to hit the table was- perhaps unsurprisingly- an Ally, as Sam (on the play) dropped a turn 2 Highland Berserker. Having put down on a Mountain to start off with, I mate it with an Island for variety and pass.
Sam brings out some ramp the next turn with a Greenweaver Druid, and with me defenseless she’s in for 2 with the Ally. I lay a Mountain and pass, dismayed at the mana flood that seems to be coming my way. There’s a ray of hope, though, as my opening grip does have the Hellkite Charger and at the present rate of land draw, he’ll be my turn 6 play.
Sam greets turn 4 with an Oran-Rief Survivalist, who gets a +1/+1 counter right out of the gate. She swings in for three, taking me down to 15, but the last laugh is mine. Knowing the Survivalist to be one of the more nuisance beaters in her deck, I snap off a quick Burst Lightning at the end of her turn to reduce it to ash while I still can. On my turn, I play a Mountain. Oh, and pass.
Undaunted, Sam one-ups me with her next play, the Turntimber Ranger, and swings in again for 3. With three Mountains in play, I’m able to cast Spire Barrage for lethal on the Ranger, leaving behind only his Wolf token before passing. Almost there, I just need to hold on a little longer before the Dragon can stabilise the board for me.
Alas, things take a turn for the worse on turn 6 when Sam follws up her Tajuru Archer with a Beast Hunt, which lands her the filthy Kazuul Warlord. Aided by the Wolf she comes in for 4, and I’m at 8. Sam remains at 20.
But at least I get the turn 6 Dragon I’d dreamed of, as I cast the Hellkite Charger. Hasty or no, he’s staying home for defense and I pass back to Sam. Predictably, Sam lays down the Warlord, and +1/+1 counters rain down on her Allies. Not ready to risk her growing troops, she passes to me.
Eager to draw blood and with no other profitable play, I cast Act of Treason on the Warlord and swing in with him for 4. Sam untaps, then casts Act of Treason on my Hellkite Charger. I have the ability to fizzle her spell- an Into the Roil sits in my hand- but with enough damage on the board to kill me anyway with my Dragon back in hand, I regrettably concede.
After a thorough shuffle to break up any land clumps, I’m confident that this game should go better than the last. I drop two Mountains to begin, Sam plays a Terramorphic Expanse turn 1 (fetching a Forest) followed by a Mountain. Unlike me, though, she has a turn 2 play: the Oran-Rief Survivalist, yet again. This time I have an answer, and as turn 3 hits I play the Molten Ravager.
A solid card, his lack of offensive bite (without pumping) is made up for by his tough back-end. He’s a great stabilisation piece at 4 toughness, and a welcome play. The board state, though, looks a little more welcoming to offense, and I’ll not be holding him back. Sam plays a Forest and passes.
Turn 4 sees me enter the red zone with the Ravager, and the four Mountains I’ve played ensure he’s got some bit to him. Sam’s only response is to swing in with the 2/2 Survivalist, and I’m beginning to take heart that her slow start will be her undoing. I swing in again on turn 5, this time for 3 to leave the mana open I need to deploy a Welkin Tern. And right about there is when things go pear-shaped.
Sam untaps, then taps to play the Kazuul Warlord. This gives her Survivalist two counters, taking it to a 4/4 in one shot. The Warlord, of course, gets a counter of his own, so he’s also a 4/4. Sam swings in with the Survivalist, and I’m now at 14 life to her 13.
Not willing to give up momentum, I swing in again on turn 6, taking Sam to 9. With an Into the Roil and Act of Treason firmly in grip, I start to see a win condition unfolding, but will need another turn to get it off. Leaving 4 mana open to kick the Into the Roil (just in case), I pass to Sam.
Sam then plays a second Survivalist, which pushes the Warlord to a 5/5 and the other Survivalist to a 6/6. At 14 life I have a small cushion to work with, so I decide I’ll let her get the damage in on the ground, bounce her last defender with Into the Roil at the end of her turn, and should just squeak in for lethal with my Act of Treason on her buff Survivalist the next round. Risky, but things are quickly getting grim.
That Sam would go aggro and swing in for 11 was expected. What was not expected, however, was that she’d be holding a Lightning Bolt for my last three points of life. I’ve found few things in Magic are quite as sublimely frustrating as being killed when you’re one turn away from winning yourself, but keep my grumbles to myself as I collect the cards for a shuffle.
It’s not like this is entirely unexpected. After all, isn’t The Adventurers’ power level slightly broken in the context of the Zendikar precons? But I’ve never been swept in any of the series we play for the deck reviews, and I wasn’t about to start now.
My opening hand has two avenues of play, with the right mana to support either. I can either go the path of the Molten Ravager again, starting off by laying Mountians and go in aggressively with it, or I can instead play Islands and get out a turn 3 Phantom Warrior. Since the Ravager route ties up my mana for the turns after that (pumping it for the attack), I decide instead on the more conservative approach with the Warrior.
Sam again has the opener, a turn 2 Highland Berserker, but I answer that right on schedule with the turn 3 Phantom Warrior. Passing to Sam, she seems to have a decend hand as well- another ally arrives, this time the nettlesome Tajuru Archer. The Dragon Whelp in my hand starts to feel like a dead draw.
I swing in on turn 4 with the unblockable Warrior, then play the Ravager for defense. Sam gets out a Joraga Bard, then swings in with her Allies taking me to 17 (I block the Berserker). Knowing that the longer the game goes on the more it tilts in her favour, I swing hard on turn 5 with both beaters, dropping her down 5 points to 13. Her answering Tuktuk Grunts make me pay the price, though, as she comes in for 7.
With the score 13-10 in her favour, I have some hard choices to make. There’s a Fireball in my hand, which can either trim back her army or be used for the kill. The Grunts have skewed that, though: I can take them out, but as a one-for-one where I’d rather pick off at least two of the weaker Allies to lessen her threat. That said, having not missed a land drop all game, I could stall for a couple more turns and use the Warrior to bring her down to lethal range, and that’s the tactic I choose.
On turn 6 I deploy a second Molten Ravager, and with three untapped Mountains still in play I have some solid defensive options. I swing in with the Warrior, taking her down to 11. Getting closer!
With nothing that can get through my Ravagers, Sam now brings out an Awakener Druid, and sends the resultant 4/5 Treefolk-Forest lumbering my way. Unwilling to crack my defenses in half yet (and unable to even trade for the 4/5), I let it through, taking me to 6.
On turn 7, a blessing! I draw an Act of Treason, and cast it upon her Treefolk, swinging in with it and the Warrior for 6. Now at 5 life, she’s one turn away from a Fireball to the face, and her army can’t get enough damage past my Ravagers to kill me.
Sam untaps, draws, taps five mana and shows me an Overrun.
I want to scream.
When we last looked at Pumped Up, the word that perhaps best described it was ‘mediocre.’ Regardless of the strength of The Adventurers (which, at the end of the day, is still just a precon deck), nothing I saw here has done much to redeem it. Successful decks that employ multiple colours generally do so in order to capitalise on the strengths of the colours and minimise their weaknesses, but fundamentally there must be some sort of synergy there. The parts must enhance the whole. At its core, Pumped Up is a sort of Jeckyll-and-Hyde concoction, a deck of two halves but no whole.
This was no more apparent than in my assessment of Game Three’s opener. I had to choose betwene going down a strongly Red or strongly Blue path- there was no feasible middle option. So much of the deck is colour-dependant! Either spells demand two of a colour in their cost (Phantom Warrior, Dragon Whelp), need two of a colour to be cast with Kicker (Into the Roil, Torch Slinger), are colour-hungry (Molten Ravager) or they’re Land-hungry (Spire Barrage).
Take all these cards out, and what are you left with, Canyon Minotaur?
(Okay, that’s not fair, Burst Lightning, Fireball and Prodigal Pyromancer, for instance, are all solid and easily-cast inclusions, but they feel like the minority here).
Zendikar is an interesting block for precons, as it feels that perhaps Wizards went a little light on the testing and balancing. I am hesitant to ‘pull rank,’ but it is likely only the disparity in play skill that allowed me to get close to winning when I did: these decks might as well be leagues apart.
Hits: Good use of the Kicker mechanic; Hellkite Charger is a splendidly bomby card for inclusion in a precon
Misses: Deck goes radically downhill from there, though; schizophrenic colour scheme weakens overall deck power; plenty of inferior card choices (Canyon Minotaur, Raging Goblin); deck feels sloppily assembled
FINAL SCORE: 3.25/5.0