Duel Decks- Ajani vs Nicol Bolas: Ajani’s Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
A young man of seemingly unassuming destiny ekes out a living away from civilisation in a perilous land. Although it will take him awhile to fully understand and awaken, there is a power lying dormant within him, and a great destiny to go with it. He might have continued to live an otherwise quite ordinary life, but fate has other plans. When his family is murdered by agents of a great and maelvolent evil, a chain of events is set in motion that will see him awaken the potential that has lain dormant within him.
But his powers are raw and unfocused; it takes the guiding hand of a mentor to allow him to learn how to exert control over them. He struggles with the blinding, corrupting forces of rage and aggression. In a harrowing battle against his adversary he then finds himself gravely injured. Nursed back to health, he rises stronger than before. In full command of his powers, he seeks out the shadowy villain behind the corruption and destruction of most everything he has held dear, and emerges triumphant. Our hero today is none other than…
Well, no, though we can see why you might think that. No, our hero today is…
The shadowy villain referred to above was none other than Nicol Bolas, the malevolent force behind the Conflux of Alara’s five shards. Taking on the role of hero is Ajani, looking to avenge the death of his brother Jazal, and this Duel Decks represents the final epic battle between these two for the fate of all of Alara. Although he would later shed the rage within him and become Ajani Goldmane, here the power within him had just awoken.
Vengeance is the Answer
Like the deck of Nicol Bolas, Ajani supports several complimentary themes in his selection of 60 cards. Let’s start with the deck’s mana curves:
As you can see, this is a more aggressive curve than Bolas’s, meaning that Ajani is at his best in the early-to-midgame. It’s fair to say that the longer the game goes on, the more the momentum shifts to Bolas. Ajani’s at his beat when he manages to field several threats early on, before Bolas can find his answers.
The first of Ajani’s themes is lifegain. Lifegain tends to prolong games in the sense that it makes your enemy need more time to kill you. This, of course, is the very opposite of the answer we’re looking for to solve the Bolas deck, so of course there’s a very welcome twist here. To be certain, Ajani’s deck has no lack of ways to gain life, but it’s the way that lifegain is used that makes it a lethal strategy.
The ‘core foursome’ of your aggro-lifegain strategy are a pair of Ajani’s Pridemates, an Ageless Entity and a Searing Meditation. The Pridemates get bigger every time you gain life, while the Entity gets bigger for every point of life you get. The Searing Meditation, on the other hand, is a simple recurring damage engine. Every time you gain life, you have the option to Shock something, either a creature or your opponent directly. This can help you keep the red zone open for business, or start to wear away at your opponent’s life total once things become a bit gummed up in the middle.
To take advantage of these cards, you need ways to reliably gain life. Towards that end, you have a number of sources of lifegain, both one-time and recurring. Ajani’s Mantra is a simple enchantment that gives you 1 life every upkeep, while the pair of Recumbent Blisses included here are essentially a hybrid of the Manta and a Pacifism. Drop all three of these out and you have the potential to be sending out six damage a turn, and few enemies will long withstand such a barrage. The Firemane Angel– in addition to being a huge must-answer beatstick- also gives you a steady trickle of life whether she’s in play or in the graveyard.
Less reliable are the conditional lifegainers, cards that give you life when a certain event occurs. The Grazing Gladehart from Zendikar is a perfect fit here, giving you a tasty dollop of 2 life with every land you play. With two Evolving Wilds in the deck, you certainly have the potential to trigger it twice in a round. There’s also a singleton Essence Warden, the ‘timeshifted’ version of a Soul Warden. Although her lifegain tigger is continent upon a creature entering the battlefield, the fact that she also triggers on your opponent’s creatures can act as a disincentive for your foe to play creatures. If every creature Bolas plays with one of your lifegain beneficiaries is another set of +1/+1 counters or 2 damage, they might well reconsider!
The Loxodon Hierarch– in addition to being a 4/4 beatstick- brings in some lifegain when he enters the battlefield. The Behemoth Sledge gives its wielder lifelink, and the Lightning Helix is lifegain tied to removal. Indeed, Ajani Vengeant offers you a reusable Helix ability in addition to his freeze and one-sided Armageddon abilities. Finally, a pair of Sylvan Bounties offer a huge chunk of life, with the added flexability that you can trade them in for a basic land if you feel you need the land more than the life.
And that’s no small matter. Like Bolas, this is a three-colour deck, so you’ll often find need of mana fixing. This also brings us to the second theme of the deck: creatures that care about land types. There are three of them here, each a 1/1- but potentially super-efficient beater- for one mana. White brings us the Loam Lion, which grows to a 2/3 if you control a Forest. The legendary Kird Ape (originally from Arabian Nights) has the same deal, but in Red. Finally there’s the Wild Nacatl, which can become a 3/3 if you have both a Mountain and Plains in play (and a 2/2 if you have just one of them). To help make sure you have the right mix of lands to take advantage of these strong creatures, the deck also carries a pair of Sylvan Rangers. With the right land drops, you can easily be swinging in for 2 damage as early as turn 2.
Delivered by Claws and Rage
The rest of the deck does what a Naya deck should- pounds on your opponent. The Woolly Thoctar does so quite inexpensively- three mana- but of course only in the right combination. The Nacatl Hunt-Pride is much more forgiving in colour cost, but is more expensive overall. it also comes quipped with a few tricks for combat. The Pride of Lions is a 4/4 which has some flexibility as to where you can place its damage, while Marisi’s Twinclaws are 2/4 double strikers, meaning they’ll hit for 4 if unblocked. Briarhorn is a reasonably-costed 3/3 which can enter play at instant speed with a Giant Growth attached to it. Spitemare punishes anyone who blocks or burns it, and the Fleetfoot Panther is a ‘gating’ creature with flash that can be used any number of ways. Be it a surprise blocker or just a way to get a prized creature out of harm’s way (perhaps in response to Bolas’s removal), it’s also a reasonably efficient beater for the cost.
From there we have a few miscellaneous cards to round out the deck. The Jade Mage excels at creating 1/1 Saproling tokens, giving you a solid mana sink for later in the game when your mana may be idle. The Qasali Pridemage is useful both for his exalted ability as well as the ability to destroy an artifact or enchantment- though Bolas has few of either. The Canyon Wildcat is a useful threat for only two mana. This Tempest reprint bypasses the red zone entirely with its mountainwalk, which means that you can still reliably send in damage even through the most stalled board states.
It’s those stalled board states that are the greatest concern for Ajani. If Bolas manages to blunt your attack, you can very easily watch as victory slips right out of your fingers. To help counter this, you have a Lead the Stampede to refill your hand with creatures. There’s also a highly versatile Naya Charm which can either snipe a defender with 3 damage, return a card from your graveyard to hand, or tap down Bolas’s defenders to administer a lethal alpha strike. Griffin Guide gives you a flying creature to help get through a stalled red zone, and the deck’s mother-of-all-alpha-strike cards, Titanic Ultimatum, should almost always prove fatal if you manage to resolve it. Don’t be fooled by the potentially massive swing of lifegain, though- Bolas for his part won’t care how much your life total sits at. Once he establishes board control, he can kill you at leisure.
To help ensure your victory, the deck packs in a number of nonbasic lands that help augment the deck’s general strategies. Vitu-Ghazi is another Saproling token generator which, like the Jade Mage, make for great mana sinks later in the game. The Sapseep Forest, Graypelt Refuge, and Kazandu Refuge all deliver an extra dose of lifegain, while the twin Jungle Shrines and Evolving Wilds make sure you have access to the right colours of mana at the right time.
Now that we’ve given both decks their analysis, join us next time when we begin the playtesting, and see how they hold up in that awful moment of truth that is first contact with the enemy.