Duel Decks- Ajani vs Nicol Bolas: Ajani’s Deck Review (Part 2 of 2)
Our second tilt with Duel Decks: Ajani vs Nicol Bolas sees the roles reversed this time, with Sam taking on the piloting of Bolas. In our last matchup, you might recall that Sam had me handily beat two games to one, though in the third her Ajani deck never had a chance. Would that trend continue, or would we see the decks pan out as evenly matched?
I’m on the play for our first matchup, and lead with a Plains while Sam follows suit with an Island. Next turn I find my first creature, Ajani’s Pridemate, while Sam answers with Surveilling Sprite. When I drop a Graypelt Refuge as my turn-3 land drop, however, Ajani shows how strong he can start. The Refuge’s piddling lifegain gives the Pridemate a +1/+1 counter and I swing in for 3, taking Sam to 17. I then underline the situation by playing Ajani’s Mantra before passing. The Pridemate has just gone from nuisance to real threat. Sam sends in the Sprite for 1, then follows with a Nightscape Familiar.
Now turn 4, I gain 1 life from the Mantra (+1 counter on the Pridemade), then follow up with a Grazing Gladehart followed by a Forest (another counter on the Pridemate). Swinging in with my 5/5, Sam taps her Island and Vapor Snags it back to my hand. The ding from the Snag puts me down to 22. Sam follows up on her turn with a Blazing Specter, which attacks in alongside the Sprite for 3 to leave me at 19. More annoyingly, it forces me to discard a Plains. Next turn I’d gain 3 life back (the Mantra and a land drop off the Gladehart), replaying the Pridemate. I drop a land (giving the Pridemate a +1/+1 counter off the lifegain), then send the Gladehart in to nibble on Sam for 2. Now at 15 life, Sam has no play other than the obvious, taking me back down to 19 and forcing the discard of a Nacatl Hunt-Pride.
Missing my land drop on turn 6, I only gain 1 life on the turn, but I play a Briarhorn turning my Gladehart into a 5/5 attacker and sending it alongside the now-4/4 Pridemate. Sam blocks the Gladehart with her Familiar, regenerating it to keep it alive and taking only 4 damage. Sam returns fire with her Specter but holds back on her Sprite. This drops me to 18 life, discarding Sylvan Bounty. Next turn I go back up to 19 off the Mantra, then attack with the 5/5 Pridemate, 3/3 Briarhorn, and the wee Gladehart. Sam picks off the Pridemate with Malice and chumps the Briarhorn, putting her down to 9 life. For her part, she attacks with the Specter- though my hand is now empty and there’s nothing left to discard. She follows up with the Fire-Field Ogre to shut off my attacks and ends her turn.
From there, my fortunes begin to fall while hers steadily increase. I gain quite a bit of life off of the Mantra and Gladehart, but drawing little more than land leaves me little to do- especially when I can’t afford to save anything in hand with her Specter lurking about. Sam adds to her defenses with an Igneous Pouncer and soon an Ogre Savant, and then her defenses become offenses and my life total begins to plummet. A turn-11 Grixis Charm sets up a lethal alpha strike, and Sam gets there.
Misfortune strikes as I ship a particularly lousy hand and get back a one-lander. Not wanting to go to 5 with an aggro deck that needs sustained early momentum, and with a few promising prospects I keep it. My opening play is a Plains with a Loam Lion, and when I hit the Forest on the draw next turn it’s a nice stroke of luck. I swing for 2, then follow with an Ajani’s Pridemate and pass. Sam’s first two turns are spent dropping land, including an opening Crumbling Necropolis.
Now turn 3, I swing for 4 with both beaters, then landcycle a Sylvan Bounty for a Mountain, which I play. Over to Sam, she deploys a Dimir Cutpurse, an especially unwelcome early visitor. Next turn I go all in again, pounding Sam for another 4 and leaving her at 10. When as expected she fires back with the Cutpurse, a surprise Briarhorn sees her only creature head for the graveyard. She does manage a Steamcore Weird, however, to pick off the Pridemate early.
I swing for 5 on turn 5, with Sam blocking the Lion with her Weird to reduce the damage to 3. I then play an Ageless Entity and pass. Lamentably for her, Sam’s turn 5 is a blank. Back to me, I remove her Weird from the equation with a Recumbent Bliss and strike in for 5, taking her to 2. Sam plays an Icy Manipulator, but she just can’t answer both creatures and concedes.
Sam leads off our final match with a promising start- a Crumbling Necropolis- while I open with an Essence Warden off a Forest. Back to Sam, she fetches a Mountain with a Terramorphic Expanse as I play Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree then attack with the Warden for 1. Things begin to pick up on turn 3 with Sam’s Dimir Cutpurse (ugh), and light on land I landcycle a Sylvan Bounty for a Plains. Needing a playable creature in a hurry, I go ahead and cast Lead the Stampede, netting a Loxodon Hierarch, a Grazing Gladehart, and a Marisi’s Twinclaws. This puts me up to eight cards in hand, so I opt to throw away a Titanic Ultimatum.
It’s now turn 4 , and when Sam attacks with the Cutpurse I choose to chump it with my Warden rather then tilt card advantage back towards Sam’s favour. She follows with a Hellfire Mongrel and passes. Back to me, I play the Twinclaws, giving me a robust defender to hold off the Cutpurse while I look to stabilise. Next turn sees Sam play a Brackwater Elemental while I play the Grazing Gladehart followed by my land drop, putting me at 23 life.
I’m cut back down to 19 when Sam surprises me on turn 6 with an Elemental attack. It hits for 4, but then gets sacrificed at the end of turn. Sam replaces the defensive lapse with a Fire-Field Ogre, and we’re more or less back to where we started. I have a few options in hand, and when I draw into a Mountain I get set up with a Searing Meditation. Back to Sam, she plays the Nightscape Familiar and swings in for 4 with the Ogre, leaving me at 17. I return fire with the Twinclaws, and Sam opts to block with her Familiar, counting on its regeneration to keep it alive. Unfortunately for Sam it was a set-up, so when I Lightning Helix her Dimir Cutpurse after combat I make sure to pay a little extra for the Searing Meditation to take the Familiar with it, too. The lifegain from the Helix puts me back to 20, and I pass turn.
Now turn 8, Sam swings in again with the Fire-Field Ogre for 4. She then fields an Ogre Savant which bounces my Twinclaws back to hand. Back to me, I play a Loxodon Hierarch and use the lifegain to kill off Sam’s Ogre. Although I don’t have enough mana open to fully take advantage of it with the Meditation, I go ahead and drop a Jungle Shrine and gain my 2 life from the Gladehart. Over to Sam, she landcycles her Jhessian Zombies for an Island and ends turn. I play a second Jungle Shrine, and this time use the Searing Meditation trigger to snipe Sam’s Ogre Savant, leaving her board virtually clear aside from her early Mongrel. I swing for 4 with the Hierarch, taking Sam to 15, then follow up with Ajani Vengeant. Sam has other ideas, however, and dreamcrushes me with an Undermine. Down to 21 life!
Sam’s looking a bit desperate, however, when she casts Deep Analysis to fish for some answers. She forces me to pitch the Pride of Lions with Pain, and passes. Over to me, I now lose 2 life from her Mongrel. I then play an Ageless Entity followed by a land drop, which gains me 2 life off the Gladehart. This gives the Entity a pair of +1/+1 counters and gives me the chance to kill Sam’s Mongrel with the Searing Medidation, a wonderfully synergistic bit of interplay. Sam’s board is now empty, and I swing in with the Hierarch and Gladehart for 6 to leave her at 9.
Sam’s turn-11 Profane Command, however, puts her back in the game. She uses it both to kill off my Hierarch as well as returning the Fire-Field Ogre to play, her best defender. I manage to kill off the Ogre with a Naya Charm and swing in for 8 but Sam Vapor Snags the Entity and takes only the 2 from the Gladehart, and I end my turn after replaying the Ageless Entity. Back to her she untaps, taps out and plays Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker.
Bolas’s first order of business is to steal the Entity, giving herself a 4/4 body. Over to me, I play I Forest and use the lifegain off the Gladehart to knock Bolas down to 1 loyalty counter via Searing Meditation. I then follow up with Marisi’s Twinclaws and pass. Sam then builds Bolas back up to 4 by destroying the Searing Meditation, then plays a Blazing Specter. And just like that- with Sam at 7 life and me nearly at 30- the game is over.
To be sure, I throw everything I can at Bolas, but he builds too quickly and Sam’s able to keep just enough creatures in play to neuter my offense. My Twinclaws trade out with the Ageless Entity. The Specter swaps with my Gladehart. And all the while Bolas is smashing things. He smashes my Vitu-Ghazi first (after I make a Saproling), then my Jungle Shrines. I can’t play anything because he’ll just steal it, and much like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas he even steals the one 1/1 Saproling.
After dismantling me and securing Sam’s position he goes ultimate. My hand is wiped, I lose all but three lands, but hey, at least I still have 21 life, right?
Next turn Bolas blows up my Forest, and I decide there’s little point in continuing. I scoop.
Thoughts & Analysis
In the Bolas review, we took a look at the deck’s manabase issues, and the risks associated with pairing two three-colour decks with minimal mana fixing against one another. The short version, in essence, is that despite the trumps each deck contains to give it advantage over the other, both are trumped by the land. Often games will be won or lost not depending on who has the better gameplay or luckier draw, but by who best manages to hit their land drops in the right colours. That’s a bit unfortunate, as both decks are fun and make for one of the more distinctive Duel Decks interactions.
And as we focused on the weaknesses of both decks in that previous writeup, so we’ll focus on the elements of gameplay present in both decks that make them successful. In each deck analysis, we broke out each deck into the broad categories of strategy that each seem to employ. For Nicol Bolas, these were threat mitigation/stalling and discard. For Ajani, there’s a rather intricate lifegainer synergy that links a number of the cards. In both cases, the decks are well-designed to support them, and the diversity of cards (both decks approach highlander status) means that while the gameplay will widely vary game to game, the decks will still retain the same ‘feel’ throughout.
There are certain strategies over time that Wizards has decreed as ‘unfun,’ and tended to scale back in successive sets. The poster child for this is land destruction. Once Stone Rain was the gold standard for smashing your opponent’s manabase, but Wizards decreed it to be too good at what it does- and too miserable for opponents. Nowadays we still get the occasional landkill spell, but it always costs more than three mana and it’s usually paired with some added effect to make the cost bump a little more palatable.
Another of these effects is discard- especially random discard. But I’ll confess to a moment of actual discomfort when I sat down against Bolas’s deck for the first time here, armed with what felt like nothing but a horde of critters and some lifegain. Some of this, of course, stems from a sense of poetic justice as discard is one of my longstanding favourite strategies. And while the first game saw Sam’s Blazing Spectre dismantle my hand, credit to Ajani for having his own resilience to field credible threats even when playing off the top of the library.
Nevertheless, it was hard to escape the feeling that Ajani was at something of a disadvantage here. As mentioned in our previous review both decks are a slave to their manabases. But the window of opportunity for Ajani opens- and closes- much sooner than Nicol Bolas’s. With a later-blooming assortment of 60 cards, Bolas can take a little more time developing. If Ajani has trouble securing a colour, he can find himself virtually ceding the game. To be fair there’s some balance as well- if Bolas stumbles on manabase development he might not have enough answers to keep from being overwhelmed.
That said, Ajani’s deck has some wonderfully fun interactions. Although I ended up losing the third game, the Grazing Gladehart – Searing Meditation combo was brutal, and the assortment of lifegain cards and cards that benefit from them (like Ajani’s Pridemate) make lifegain unusually fun to play.
Hits: Strong lifegain synergies throughout the deck make a normally pedestrian (and often useless) tactic a lot more fun; deck offers surprising amount of intricate playlines
Misses: Dreadful spot removal, you have very few ways to resolve single-creature threats (like the Specter); potential for deck to ‘seize up’ early if the mana doesn’t flow well
OVERALL SCORE: 4.35/5.00