Duel Decks- Knights vs Dragons: The Knights Review (Part 2 of 2)
Enough talk- now that we’ve picked both decks apart and gone through their inner workings, its time to shuffle them up and deal a hand (or three). I’ve decided to pilot the Knights for this first foray into the conflict, while the Dragon deck will be steered by none other than Sam. Sam’s had plenty of experience with massive beaters, and a transition from Green to this Red deck is a pleasant one given the sheer volume of burn. We squared off for the customary three matches, and here are our notes.
Sam opens with a Skirk Prospector, which she uses to get ahead with an attack on turn 2 after I’ve dropped nothing to dissuade her. I do a little mana-fixing with a Grasslands to get a Plains, but the early game appears to be going Sam’s way. A turn-3 Dragonspeaker Shaman does nothing to dispel the notion, but I manage to land a Loxodon Warhammer. I can chalk up my slow start to the Selesnya Sanctuaries in my hand. I kept with one, then drew a second on turn 2. Until I actually cast something, since I’m on the draw I am prevented from playing one of them, since the land it returns to my hand would put me at eight cards and force an end-of-turn discard. Finally, the Warhammer relieves the pressure on my hand, and I can now play them freely as circumstances dictate.
Now turn 4, Sam sends in her duo for 4 (taking me to 15), then adds a Bloodmark Mentor. I drop a Sanctuary for that all-important second White mana source (returning a Forest), then pass. Next turn Sam swings with the team and gives me a wonderful gift- I use Harm’s Way to prevent the Shaman’s damage, then kill off the Shaman with it. Sam’s on four land, and the Shaman’s cost-reduction ability could have allowed Sam to cast nearly the first Dragon she drew. I’ve never been a fan of effects like Harm’s Way, but every once in awhile you do get to play one in that “best-case-scenario” hat (almost) makes you forget you’re actually playing one. Sam follows this up with a Dragon Fodder and passes. Over to me, I summon my first creature- a White Knight– and lay down my second Sanctuary (pulling back another Forest).
Although deprived of her Shaman, Sam’s not without her tricks as she sacs both Goblins she received with the Fodder tothe Prospector on turn 6, and taps out to summon the mighty Mordant Dragon. I have no answer, instead attacking for 2 with the Knight then playing the Juniper Order Ranger. Next turn Sam attacks with her Dragon, taking me down to 7 life and blasting the Ranger into oblivion. She follows this up with an Armillary Sphere. Over to me, I equip the Loxodon Warhammer onto my White Knight, then play a Knight Exemplar. She’ll be dead almost right away- she’s the only useful target for the Mordant- but she’ll buy my White Knight a round. I swing in with him for 6, which swings the game into a tie at 13 life apiece.
The Knight Exemplar meets her expected fate next turn, turn 8, as Mordie flies in for 7 damage. Sam ends her turn, and I’m back on the attack again, trying to outrace her Dragon. I attack with the Knight and pump him with Sigil Blessing, which puts Sam down to 5 and restores me to 14. I play a Knight of the White Orchid, which means that Sam won’t be able to stop my next round’s attack just by blowing it up with her Dragon. Alas, Sam topdecks an answer- a Cone of Flame– and wipes my board. Without an answer to her Dragon, my defeat is inevitable.
I have a much stronger start this go-round. Although I don’t get a turn-1 play outside of land (watching with a groan as Sam lands the Skirk Prospector again), I do have the right mana to deploy a turn-2 White Knight. Sam looks to fix her manabase with an Armillary Sphere and passes.
First blood is drawn on turn 3 as I send the Knight into the red zone, then I follow up by adding a Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers. Sam entrenches her defenses behind a Mudbutton Torchrunner– annoying, but I can’t let it put me off of aggressive play lest she build into her Dragons. I’ll just have to take some losses. I hold the Cavalier back and swing in with the Knight, certain she’ll decline the trade with the more tempting fare of the Cavaliers sitting on the board. She lets it through. I play the Loxodon Warhammer and pass. Next turn, Sam plays a second Torchrunner, and leaves me little choice but to go all in.
Now turn 5, I equip the Warhammer to the Cavaliers and send both of my Knights in to attack. Sam’s Torchrunner duo can kill both of my Knights if she wants to, but she lets the White Knight pass unmolested. Instead, she chumps the Cavaliers, then finishes them off with the Torchrunner’s death-spasm Lightning Bolt. Still, the trample and lifelink of the Cavaliers ensure their death was not in vain, as it’s now a 9-26 game in my favour. At last, it seems the Knights are getting their promised strong start. Sam spends her turn 5 building up land, first popping the Armillary Sphere to grab two Mountains from her library, then landcycling a Fiery Fall for one more. Next turn I equip the Warhammer to the White Knight and attack for 5 (Sam takes it), and follow up with a Leonin Skyhunter. Unfortunately, Sam again shows the Cone of Flame, burning out both Knights and singeing me for 1 (down to 28). She then attacks with her Goblins for 2 more.
Still, I’m far from spent as I summon a Zhalfirin Commander on turn 7. Sam doubles her Goblin population with a Dragon Fodder, then attacks for 1 with the Torchrunner knowing I’d likely let it pass (I do). After I fire off an end-of-turn Heroes’ Reunion (putting me up to 32 life), I begin my turn by girding my Commander with the trusty Warhammer. Sam responds by sacrificing her Torchrunner to her Prospector to kill off the Commander. I respond in turn with a Mighty Leap to save him, but Sam gets the final word by saccing her Goblin tokens to fuel a Bogardan Hellkite. The Hellkite’s 5 points of enters-the-battlefield damage puts the final nail in the coffin of the Commander, and blasts me for the remaining 4. Fair play to Sam. For her next turn, Sam simply attacks with the Dragon and the Prospector, chunking me down to 22 life and beginning a very frustrating sequence of plays. Sam’s at 4 life- close to death, but I struggle to close the gap.
On turn 11, I animate the Village, equip my Warhammer to it and send it in to attack. Sam summons a Bogardan Rager to kill it, though I do cut her down to 2 life and jump to 16 from the lifelink. Sam puts me back down to 10, then adds a Bloodmark Mentor.
On turn 12 I play a Juniper Order Ranger. This time, Sam holds back the Dragon as a first-striking defender.
I add a turn-13 Paladin of Prahv (which triggers the Ranger’s counter-adding ability for both my creatures). Neither are especially useful, but they do threaten Sam and can chump her Dragon thanks to the Spidersilk Armor. I’m not the only one with useful enchantments- Sam plays a Captive Flame. Now all her creatures have first strike and firebreathing, and she’s not shy of land this late in the game.
On turn 14, I topdeck the answer I so desperately need. I send in both creatures to attack into Sam’s trio of defenders. She blocks the Ranger with the Hellkite and the Paladin with her Prospectors (pumping it to lethal first strike power). My crreatures, though, aren’t the real threat: Harm’s Way is. I prevent 2 damage to my Ranger, and send it to her face for the win.
With a win apiece and two very closely-matched games, we enter the third with a newfound sense of rivalry. Sam starts with a Mountain, while I have a turn-1 play this time, a Caravan Escort. Sam responds with a Fire-Belly Changeling next turn, while I level the Escort (making him a 2/2) before sending him in to attack. Undaunted, Sam swings with the Changeling next round, and declines to pump it in favour of casting the hated Dragonspeaker Shaman. I deploy the Spidersilk Armor to bump the toughness of the Escort, then attack for 2 more.
Now turn 4, Sam swings for 3 against my open defense, then drops the Mordant Dragon. She’s on four land, but the Shaman’s discounting makes up the rest. This time, though, I found myself with removal in my opening grip, killing off her Dragon with Reprisal to clear the path for my Escort. I then summon a pair of Lionheart Mavericks and pass. Next turn Sam attacks with the Changeling again, and I accept her trade for a Maverick. She then replaces it with a Dragon Whelp and passes back. I level the Escort to L3, but the Whelp’s presence means I am forced to bide my time. I end my turn.
A turn-6 Bloodmark Mentor changes things up a bit, and it only gets worse when Sam girds the Whelp with a Claws of Valakut. She swings for 7, and I chump it with the remaining Maverick. Next turn I fully level the Escort, which is now a 5/6 body with reach. This now puts the both of us in board stallout, as we’ve both depleted our hands and neither have a profitable attack. We’ve been reduced instead to playing off the top of our library, as can occasionally happen.
Turn 7: Blanks for both.
Turn 8: Sam’s blank, I draw and play Plover Knights. This breaks the stall a bit, as I now have two creatures that can trade out for her Whelp, which is Sam’s only real threat.
Turn 9: Sam reestablishes détente by killing my Caravan Escort with a 7-point Jaws of Stone, with the overkill point thrown at me instead (taking me to 15). With only one creature that can trade for the Whelp, we’re right back to a stall. I play a Zhalfirin Commander and pass.
Turn 10: Blanks for both (though I do play a Plains)
Turn 11: Sam plays and pops an Armillary Sphere, giving her more land to drop. I play a Knotvine Paladin.
Turn 12: We both drop land.
Turn 13: Sam lands a Skirk Prospector. I look to break the stall with an Alaborn Cavalier, which can tap down Sam’s mighty Whelp. Buuuut…
Things finally snap on turn 15. Sam misplays, attacking with her Guardian. I block it with my Steward of Valeron, using the Zhalfirin Commander’s pump-ability to bloat the Steward, killing the Henge. Sam facepalms as she realises she didn’t account for the Commander’s intervention and passes. I pounce, swinging with everything. We both have a ton of land by this point, so I know I can work some favourable outcomes through the Commander alone. The Alaborn Cavalier taps down her best defender (the Whelp), leaving her feeble ground troops to get in the way. Plus my Steward’s vigilance ensures I’ll still have a chump-blocker back to get in front of her retaliatory Whelp, if it comes. In a nice bit of synergy, I note that the Steward’s vigilance also lets it add to the power of the Knotvine Paladin.
Still, Sam’s far from vulnerable. That last card in her hand turns out to be a Bogardan Rager, which she flashes onto the battlefield. It’s +4/+0 ETB-ability is placed on her Dragonspeaker Shaman, making it a 6/2 first striker (thanks to the Mentor). Sam declares that her Shaman will block the Commander, her Prospector will chump the Knotvine Paladin, and her newly-summoned Rager will get in front of the Alaborn Cavalier.
I have enough land for four pumps with the Commander, and have two creatures in peril. I can save either the Commander or the Cavalier, but not both. It’s a painful dilemma- the ability to use all that land to pump my Knights versus the ability to lock down that Dragon Whelp as a defender. After going into the tank, I opt to save the Crusader and let my noble Zhalfirin Commander die. Sam drops down to 9 life from 14, and rather than use the last two pumps to add to the incoming damage I leave the land open. Post-combat, I replace my loss with a Juniper Order Ranger.
Sam’s turn 16 is a blank. As in the last game, I draw a useless Edge of Autumn, cycle it, and draw a Treetop Village (which I play). As I declare my attack phase, Sam snipes off the Alaborn Cavalier with a freshly-drawn Punishing Fire, forcing me to abort a massive attack. Instead, I settle for sending in the Plover Knights, a win-win for me (3 damage if unblocked, or a trade with the Whelp). She opts to take the damage and goes down to 6.
Back to Sam, she mises a Breath of Darigaaz and nearly sweeps the board. My Plover is left alive, but tapped from attacking. And I have nothing to get in the way of her Dragon Whelp. Thanks to the Claws of Valakut and her baker’s-dozen Mountains, Sam’s attack for 15 is exactly enough to kill me.
Thoughts & Analysis
Counting our traditional pre-writeup friendly, both the Dragons and the Knights ended up going 2-2 on the day, a perfect split. Further adding to the sense of balance is that none of the games were lopsided blowouts, and most were right down to the wire. Hats off to Wizards for making what might well be one of the best-balanced Duel Decks yet. Of course, balance is only one measure of quality in the product, albeit a crucial one. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of a repeating loop of beatings.
That said, Knights didn’t entirely feel as fun as the Dragons seemed to be. That the Knights were capable of fast starts- and would suffer without them- was expected. That the Dragons could get some even faster early damage in was a pleasant surprise. But in creating an environment which rewarded the Dragons player for enduring an early beating by making their Dragons rather hard to remove, it introduces an element of frustration into the dynamic. In only one of the three games here was I able to spot-remove a Dragon (via Reprisal), and the deck didn’t perform quite as fast as I’d hoped it would.
Part of this is a consequence of the Knights’ mana base. The modern-era balance tends to be between speed and versatility (the early Duals gave you the best of both, and boast a pricetag to match). Want any basic land you need? A Terramorphic Expanse will find it for you, but you’ll lose a turn as it enters the battlefield tapped. The Grasslands that come in the Knights’ deck get you either a Plains or a Forest untapped, but the Grasslands themselves enter play tapped- go figure. Witness also the pair of Selesnyan Sanctuaries- they give you an ‘extra’ mana, but with the drawback of not only entering play tapped, but bouncing a land back to your hand.
All this utility comes at a cost: higher versatility means slower speed. But as it turns out, speed is much more valued to this deck than versatility is. Green mana is required for only a handful of cards (eight, to be specific), and then only one Green mana is needed. On the other hand, not only is the rest White, but much of it is heavy White: ten different cards demand two White mana in the casting cost. A full 25% of the lands in the Knights deck enter play tapped while generally offering minimal benefit. It’s the right idea, erhaps, but this is the wrong deck for it. These lands are less of a “versatility bump” and likely more of a brake on speed, ensuring that the Knights don’t go too fast in the early game. While effective at doing so, that adds to the frustration. At times the deck feels like you’ve been given the keys to a Porsche, but told you can’t leave third gear.
The selection of Knights is very solid, with a fair amount of synergy and overlap to allow players to make connections between cards. On that element, this was definitely a hit.
Hits: Good creature selection, with some synergies between cards
Misses: Frustratingly poor removal; mana base acts as a brake on speed
OVERALL SCORE: 4.25/5.00