Duel Decks- Divine vs Demonic: Demonic Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
Far from the hallowed heights of heaven, today we descend into the brimstone pits of hell to take measure of the infernal forces arrayed against the Divine deck. When it comes to the Duel Decks, the second analysis is often the more interesting one, as the grand vision of the decks’ designers comes into focus. For Divine, we had a trade-the-early-game-for-the-late-game strategy, with gobs of absurdly expensive bombs, little removal and even less ramping. The idea there was to stall out for the early and mid-game with some light creature presence, then take over the skies as early as turn 4 and beat down your opponent.
There are, naturally, a number of different responses to this strategy. Obviously, there’s always the option of the ‘mirror’- do the exact same thing, but in Black (this was the Anthologies method). Alternately, you could go the other direction entirely and show a contrast in strategy, meeting a slower opponent with a faster Black creature rush (as seen in Phyrexia vs the Coalition). In the end, however, it looks as if Demonic charts something of a maiddle path here. Faster than Divine but not blisteringly fast by any means, it comfortably moves into the ground abdicated by Divine and demands control of the mid-game.
To see how it accomplishes this, we’ll turn now to the creatures of Demonic.
Weep for the Dead
Next to the Noah’s Ark-like Divine, with two of almost every non-top-of-curve card, Demonic seems far more menagerie- only three of the creatures within are not represented in singleton form (Overeager Apprentice, Dusk Imp, Demon’s Jester). Let’s start by examining the curve:
As you can see, this is a much steadier and consistent distribution of cost over Divine, and indeed differentiating the two decks through mana curve is the way to go. It gives each deck its own feel and voice, as opposed to just cranking out replicas of one another. The latter is easier design, but its to their credit that Wizards has generally avoided this approach with latter-day releases.
Owing in part to Wizards’ longstanding aversion to the creature type ‘Demon’ for many years, there are far slimmer pickings here in terms of quantity- Divine stuffed in fourteen Angels! No last-minute shoehorning in a Coat of Arms here- Demonic boasts a mere three of its namesake creatures, and must make do with Imps to fill in the bulk of the deck. This is no strike on the deck- both do a very fine job of keeping to their respective flavours. Not surprisingly, though, your three Demons are the most expensive creature options. The iconic (and premium ‘mythic rare’) Lord of the Pit is actually the least expensive of the three in terms of straight mana cost, but has an upkeep cost requiring the sacrifice of a creature. The Reiver Demon is a little lest robust in the body, but its enters-the-battlefield ability can flat out win you games- even ones you were well behind in. Lastly, Kuro, Pitlord tops out at nine mana, but his special ability is not only as flavourfully Black as you can get, it’s also potentially devastating to your opponent if you have enough life to spare (one of the few times you’ll actually be happy to have a Demon’s Horn in play).
Of course, between your first land and the Demons, there’s plenty of game to play, so we turn now to the rest of the deck, beginning with its least inhabitants. As mentioned above, Demonic happily occupies the space left vacant by Divine, which seems to surrender the early game in exchange for powerful late-game options. Demonic boasts nine creatures in the 2-3 converted mana cost slots, so you can expect to get on the board more early and need to press your advantage.
In your two-drops you have your first Imp (a Foul one), which is a fair-deal: a 2/2 flyer for two mana and two life. Alongside it is Weatherlight’s Abyssal Gatekeeper, who may have guarded that gate for centuries but- sadly for him- gets immortalised on a Magic card being talked down to by Gerrard. This sore point aside, the Gatekeeper is one of your anti-Akroma measures, so be sure not to throw him away without good cause.
Moving into the three-drops, we have a number of options here which support the overall direction of the deck. First amongst these are the two Overeager Apprentices. Underwhelming 1/2 bodies, these exist for one reason alone: to be sacrificed when the time is right to power out a Demon (or something else vital to your war effort). Remember that Black, like Red, happily trades future options for direct benefit now. Cashing in the Apprentice costs you two cards to get you a mere three mana. This is a terrible deal under most any circumstances, so make sure you get your money’s worth by at least bringing out something that will give you tangible benefit.
From there we have what are, essentially, weenies with wings. You have your vanilla option (Dusk Imp), your slightly-improved-but-with-drawback option (Daggerclaw Imp), the proto-Deathtouch Stinkweed Imp, and the pick of the litter Soot Imp, who acts as a sort of reverse-Angel’s-Feather for your opponent.
The bodies don’t get all that much more impressive in the four-drops (all 2/2’s with one 2/3), but that extra point of mana buys you some more impressive abilities. The Souldrinker is an uncommon thing- a grounded critter- but its ability lets you power it up at the expense of life. Paying 3 life for a single +1/+1 counter is no steal, but when you take into consideration that most of Divine’s midgame threats are weaker bodies as well, you can start to outclass them paying this cost only once or twice. Plus, it makes for a solid combat trick, and your opponent may hestitate in trying to trade out creatures for it. It’s not the best option in slot, but it does fit the “trade life for power” motif in play here, and it also has some of the more groan-inducing flavour text you’ll find in the game.
A Cackling Imp gives you a little reach should the midgame stall out in the red zone, while the generally superior Abyssal Specter gives you the opportunity to incrementally outpace your opponent through card advantage. Divine will likely clog the skies with blockers, but if you can get him through, do so at every opportunity (even if it means losing a little life to a counterattack… Demonic wins little by turtling). Finally there are a pair of Demon’s Jesters, who are an efficient if conditional beater. Although triggering Hellbent requires you to have no cards in hand (thus forfeiting any sort of bluff position you might have), 4/3 flyers might well prove worth the trade-off depending on the board state. As with anything involving the mind game of Magic, your mileage may vary.
Lastly there’s a singleton Fallen Angel, who is as much a flavour addition as anything else. A 3/3 flyer for five mana wins no awards, and you may find creatures too precious a commodity to lose to trigger her ability often, but unblocked she can close out a game for you if you go “all-in” and wipe your own board. And fortunately, there is another option to feed both her and the Lord of the Pit in your noncreature support spells.
A Price Etched on Fate
That card is the Fallen Empires reprint Breeding Pit, which while having an entirely unwelcome drawback of a recurring mana cost, gives you a steady and reliable supply of 0/1 Thrulls to sacrifice to whatever calls for it. And there are plenty of things that do aside from the aforementioned creatures. Oni Possession is a very potent aura that requires a similar upkeep. And of course, there’s sac effects such as the Abyssal Gatekeeper and Barter in Blood for whom Thrulls serve as if born to it (oh wait, they are!).
Given the relative lack of removal in Divine, auras aren’t quite the dangerous risk they tend to be in Constructed play. You’re not going to get two-for-oned in response to your casting of the aura unless they have an Otherworldly Journey to spare, and even then your critter will be coming back with a permanent bonus. You still can lose out if your creature is the target of enchantment-based removal like Pacifism, but those are the risks you run. Generally, you should expect to get your money’s worth out of Oni Possession and Unholy Strength, though of course it’s often preferable to put them on your second-best creature to make your opponent’s decisions a little more difficult.
Sadly for Black, your removal suite- while more robust than Divine’s, is still somewhat tepid. There’s spot removal in Dark Banishing, sac effects Cruel Edict and Barter in Blood, and the multipurpose Consume Spirit and Corrupt. As they can offer direct damage to your opponent, the latter two are especially prized here, and can frequently steal you games (remember that due to the way the spells are templated, your opponent’s Healing Salve will reduce the effectiveness of Corrupt, but not as much for Consume Spirit).
You have to be somewhat careful when playing your sacrifice effects. Akroma, Angel of Wrath has protection from Black, and if she hits the table you’re in serious trouble. The designers offered a workaround here in the form of sacrifices, but these often require some engineering to work the way you’ll need them to. Sometimes you may have to make unfavourable trades, or blow some of your other removal to ensure that your opponent has no choice but to offer up Akroma. There’s a risk/reward dynamic here- if you always hold onto the cards you need to deal with Akroma instead of playing them, you’ll be well prepared for the approximately one-in-four games you might see her, but you’ll be hindering your ability to win in the other three. Play the odds- if you need these spells to get ahead, use them. If you can kill your opponent before they get to eight mana, you’ll never have to worry about Akroma!
The remaining cards are a bit of a hodgepodge. There’s a single Duress for some hand disruption, a fairly rubbish Demon’s Horn, two Dark Rituals for vital mana ramp (see the bit about Overeager Apprentice above on how to manage these), as well as a Promise of Power and a beatiful Demonic Tutor, from back when tutoring was cheap!
Overall the noncreature spell selection is a little underwhelming, as it was with Divine. Here is the combined mana curve:
Both have a somewhat random feel, as if they wanted to make each game fresh by giving you dependable creatures for reliability, and mixing things up in your spells. If Demonic can get out ahead early, it has the best chance of winning. Divine simply has too many bombs in it for you to assume that you’re not in deep trouble once your foe gets to their sixth mana, and you’ll likely start having problems right before then. Get out early, do whatever you can to press your advantage, and you’ll have the best chance of winning.
We’ll return to Demonic soon to take it out into the field and see how it performs. See you then!