Magic 2012: Blood and Fire Review (part 1 of 2)
By all accounts, Magic 2010 was a resounding success. In one stroke, Wizards completely retooled the concept of a Core Set. No longer would it be a rehashed mishmash of reprints- M10 would contain all-new cards never seen before (even if many of them were functional reprints). A new set every two years? Stale. The Core Set would now be an annual event, giving Wizards greater ability to keep the Standard environment fresh while offering new cards to keep the rest of the playerbase intrigued.
Moving from strength to strength, Magic 2011 kept all the strengths of its predecessor and even added a new innovation- each set would bring back a classic mechanical keyword in addition to the usual crop of ‘evergreen’ ones (flying, first strike, and so on). For M11, that was scry, a mechanic first introduced in 2004’s Fifth Dawn. This time around, we’re going back in time to 2006’s Guildpact, to the Gruul guild’s defining mechanic of bloodthirst.
Bloodthirst has been hailed as a canny choice for a core set because of how it compels novice players to develop the habit of casting creatures during their second main phase. Since creatures with bloodthirst optimise only when your opponent has already been damaged in the turn, that typically (though not necessarily) means waiting until after you’ve swung in with your creatures to start adding reinforcements. Unless your creatures have enters-the-battlefield effects that you need prior to attacking (like an Æther Adept to bounce their best defender), this is generally accepted as correct play- but it’s not always evident to the new player. Bloodthirst gives elegant guidance rather than a stern lecture. Unlike the Gruul, whose colours were Green and Red, this time around bloodthirst is primarily the province of Red and Black, though Green isn’t left entirely out of the party (Black and Red each get four bloodthirst creatures in M12, Green gets two).
A trend we’ve been marking for the past year is the movement of intro pack decks to get back in touch with their inner theme deck. After the advent of the Intro Pack design with Shards of Alara, there was a sense that the decks had been dumbed down perhaps just a little too much in an attempt to use them as gateways to the game (theme decks tended to be more broad-spectrum for any skill level rather than just ‘teaching tools’). Zendikar block was probably the low point of this design, but since then things have been moving steadily back. (I’ve written a lot about this devolution/evolution, most recently touched upon in The Five Best Intro Decks of Scars Block). We are, therefore, quite pleased to see the quality level- although far from uniform- has been continued for Magic 2012. For our first foray into the latest round of Intro Pack decks, we’ll be taking a look at the bloodthirst-themed Black/Red construction, Blood and Fire.
The Most Abominable Desires
Like its M10/M11 Core Set predecessors, Blood and Fire follows the overall structure of one colour ascendant/one colour supporting. In this case, what we have is a mainly Red deck with a 2-to-1 ratio over its Black counterpart. What the colours both bring to the table are bloodthirst creatures- and plenty of them.
At its core, Blood and Fire revolves around this very simple strategy: take advantage of bloodthirst to get a tempo advantage over your opponent. Tempo is one of those confusing Magic terms you hear spoken of often but not always readily defined. As it applies here, tempo denotes the pace at which you gain creatures on the battlefield, and its crucial to fully understanding the bloodthirst mechanic’s aims. Let’s say that you and your opponent each have a creature in hand. Your opponent’s creature is a 2/2 for two mana. Your creature also costs two mana- but it’s a 1/1. Your opponent is going to gain tempo on you when you both play your creatures, because theirs is the more efficient card. In short, they’re getting more bang for their buck than you are, and that advantage should win them the game if nothing else happens.
Now pretend that that two-drop of yours- while still a 1/1- has bloodthirst 2. Provided you manage to damage your opponent first, you’re now going to be casting a 3/3 creature for the same amount of mana your hapless opponent will use trotting out his 2/2. Now the tempo advantage has swung in your favour. Few games are won or lost on the basis of a single plain 2/2 or 3/3… but over the course of the game, tempo gives you incremental advantage. Just like when you bounce their best defender with that Æther Adept, as we discussed above. The Adept costs three mana for a 2/2, but as long as the creature you’re bouncing costs more than one mana (since a 2/2 on-curve should be two mana), then you’re coming out ahead when they have to use their resources to recast their blocker.
If you’re still not fully comfortable with the concept of tempo, don’t worry- Blood and Fire will give you plenty of opportunities to get comfortable. In short, it’s a crash course in the concept, laden with bloodthirsy creatures that beg for you to do harm before summoning them- and plenty of ways to do that harm. Here’s the creature curve for the deck:
As you can see, the deck has a substantial creature emphasis to it, and the creatures can be broadly broken down into two categories: ‘bloodthirsters,’ and their supporting cast. Let’s begin with the former.
Your chance at bloodthirst starts fairly early on- as soon as turn 2. A pair of Stormblood Berserkers give you the chance to land a 3/3 on your second turn, and- even more deadly- one that can’t be blocked except by two or more creatures. This condition will typically give all but your most creature-heavy decks some cause for concern, and gives you the opportunity for the occasional two-for-one. A trio of Duskhunter Bats continue the evasive tradition here, trading in the chance at larger size for the ability to fly. A 2/2 flyer for two mana is a superb deal, and one of the interesting tensions of the deck and mechanic is knowing when to cast the creature on its own, and knowing when to hold it back to angle for bloodthirst. You might often find that against decks with few answers to flyers, a single Duskhunter Bat cast as a 1/1 will ensure subsequent bloodthirsts go off without a hitch.
Moving up the ladder we have a trio of Blood Ogres, 2/2 first strikers that have bloodthirst 1. Their Black counterpart- the Bloodrage Vampire– has no first strike capability, but instead offers you an aggressively asymmetrical power/toughness ration. Cast with bloodthirst, these are three-mana 4/2’s- a good deal in Black given the absence of a drawback. Consider the M11 equivalent- the Nether Horror– cost a full mana more.
The remaining four creatures of this category all clock in at the four-drop slot, and you have two of each. The first is the mighty Gorehorn Minotaur, which offer a very simple bargain: cast them without bloodthirst, and you’ve overpaid. Cast them with, and they’re a bargain! The Vampire Outcasts are much the same. Unenhanced, they compare poorly to the Vampire Nighthawk– also uncommon. With bloodthirst, they’re a very good deal.
All the bargains in the world don’t necessarily add up to a winning formula, however. If your deck consisted entirely of one-casting-cost 2/1’s, you’d win the sprint but likely lose the marathon. With the option to get 4/2’s, 4/4’s, and 5/5’s through bloodthirst, however, Blood and Fire has the tools it needs to secure victory.
It just needs a little help from its friends.
Although certainly bloodthirsted creatures will help pave the way for their successors, there simply aren’t enough of them to rely on them to do all the heavy lifting. Towards that end, Blood and Fire has given you a number of ways to ensure you’re getting the steady trickle of damage in each round to let you take full advantage of your mechanic. A Tormented Soul may not be useful later as a chump-blocker, but it’s unblockability means you’ll be doing a steady point of damage every turn until your enemy finds a way to deal with it. Twin Goblin Fireslingers also give you the advantage to get stuck in for steady damage, and the lone Goblin Arsonist is good for a one-time dose (also doubling as a removal option against a nettlesone 1-toughness creature).
Laden with bloodthirst creatures poised and ready to take advantage of turn-2 damage, you aren’t given many options in the slot for the supporting cast. Still, you have the services of a Goblin Tunneler and Onyx Mage to augment your troops. The Tunneler will help one of your weenies get in for unblockable damage, helping keep the steady trickle flowing to help maximise your bloodthirst options. The Onyx Mage is an interesting fellow- for only two mana, you can ensure that most every chump blocker takes its killer with it. It makes for a particularly nasty combo with the Arsonist, who can take out two different creatures with deathtouch if used as a chumper, and synergises well with a few other cards in the deck.
The three-drop slot is similarly lonely, boasting but a single Manic Vandal who is included to help you manage your opponent’s artifacts. Have a care when playing him- the absence of a may clause means if yor opponent doesn’t have any in play, the Vandal will be coming after one of yours instead! From there we have the Goblin Bangchuckers as a four-drop. With no way to boost a creature’s toughness here- no Equipment, no damage prevention- the Bangchuckers are truly at their own mercy. The sadism that went into the card’s design is matched only by the sadism that felt the need to include it in Blood and Fire.
At the top of the curve we have a pair of Crumbling Colossi. Each Colossus is a one-shot deal, requiring that it be sacrificed at the end of combat once it attacks. This is exactly the kind of deeply flavourful card we’re delighted to see in the set, and it’s a fine inclusion here. Given its hefty power, this will certainly dissuade your enemies from neglecting their defense, which should give you a little more breathing room on the battlefield. Finally, we have a pair of Dragons- the Flameblast and Volcanic– to give you strong presence in the air. The Volcanic Dragon is fairly straightforward- it offers flying, haste, and a 4/4 body… and that’s it. The Flameblast Dragon, however, gives you a little more for the mana, and the opportunity for some significant card advantage if its not dealt with quickly.
Bonus trivia: Despite having been featured in Shards of Alara’s Primordial Jund (and contrary to common misconception), the Flameblast Dragon is not the first card to have prestige rare status in two different decks. That honour is reserved for the Nightmare, who was the central card in both 9th Edition’s Dead Again and Magic 2010’s Death’s Minions. To be fair to the critics, the Dead Again Nightmare was not a foil card.
Split the Earth
The noncreature support for Blood and Flame is lean but focused. You have a small suite of Red burn spells consisting of an Incinerate and three Shocks (after coming back for two core sets, Lightning Bolt has faded back into retirement). These offer some range of flexibility in that they can be used either to resolve a threat on the board, or to damage your opponent directly. Red mages have long been familiar with this tension, typically using early burn to clear a path for their most efficient damage (creatures), before saving later burn to close out the game. The added twist here is that you might find occasional need to blast your opponent earlier in the game to give you a bloodthirst trigger. Towards that end, there’s also a Taste of Blood, a niggling card whose utility really blossoms in precisely this type of deck.
Descending into the red zone, we see a few options to influence the outcome there as well. A Hideous Visage gives all your creatures intimidate, which makes the card highly situational. Against another Red and/or Black deck, it’s a limited or dead draw, but against a deck that shares no colours with yours it is a bow perched atop a finely-wrapped alpha strike. There’s also a pair of Tectonic Rifts, the latest in a long line of spells to try and balance land destruction. The classic Stone Rain was adjudged too cheap for its crippling effect, and since that time Wizards has been trying to make landkill a little harder to pull off. To balance the greater expense, though, they’ve tried tacking on various bonuses to make the cards more palatable: see Demolish, Desecrated Earth, Roiling Terrain, and Melt Terrain for some recent examples. For the extra mana, Tectonic Rift also is an alpha-strike enabler, and might well be stronger than some of the aforementioned predecessors- especially against defensive-minded decks who keep all of their assets back. It scarcely bears mentioning at this point that this is another bloodthirst enabler.
Finally there’s the new Lightning Greaves, the Swiftfoot Boots. Unlike something akin to a Whispersilk Cloak, there’s no innate synergy here, but it’s still a fairly useful inclusion. The cheap protection it affords your closers alone is good reason to appreciate its protection. Finally, there’s the combo piece Warstorm Surge. The Surge calls back to recent cards like Rumbling Aftershocks and Rage Extractor, though unlike those cards there’s no specific mechanic that the Surge is predicated upon. Rather, it has a more passive synergy with your bloodthirst creatures, dealing out more damage if you’ve managed to cast them bloodthirsted.
All in all, Blood and Fire has a great feel to it. It’s relatively focused and each card has a role, even if some are more valuable than others. Delightfully, there’s not a single vanilla creature to be found, though it might be argued that the ‘French vanilla’ (has a twist when it enters the battlefield, but is plain after that) bloodthirst is close enough for some. Still, there’s enough of a challenge in trying to orchestrate the board state to maximise the return on your investment that the deck should be a fun one to play. We’re looking forward to taking it for a spin, and will report back in two days!