Tempest: Flames of Rath Review (Part 1 of 2)
When we began Ertai’s Lament in June of 2010, we knew what we wanted to do- review Magic’s varied and storied preconstructed decks- but little direct sense of how we wanted to go about doing it.We knew we wanted to give a full accounting for each deck, which meant both a card-by-card analysis as well as a playtest in the field against another deck to see how it did in practice, and we had our starting point as the recently-released set of five Duels of the Planeswalker paper decks, but beyond that it was all glorious trial and error.
The first executive decision was made on our very second post, when we felt that the pieces would be better digested if broken down into two halves rather than taken together into one big article. Thus Liliana’s Eyes of Shadow remains the only deck ever to get only one post’s worth of attention, and even then it only managed just over 900 words. From that point forward, reviews have always been two-part affairs. It would take some time for us to decide that doing the analysis consistently before the playtest was the preferred method- for a time we more or less alternated, with some decks getting a blind playtest then having the analysis half of the review break down what we saw out of the deck.
The next change involved how we selected decks. Initially we felt we’d have some fun wandering our way through the preconstructed universe like a blind drunkard, weaving here and about wherever whim and fancy took us. For example, after only two Duels of the Planeswalker deck reviews we took a detour and hit up Stronghold’s Call of the Kor. Indeed, it was this notion that led us to some other one-off reviews, such as Truth Seekers from Saviors of Kamigawa and- bringing this story around to the task at hand- a nifty Blue/White control number called Deep Freeze from Tempest.
As we’ve gone on, we’ve made a lot of other little behind-the-scenes adjustments that might seem obvious in hindsight but had to be arrived at. Reviewing sets in block order, for example, gave us the ability not just to review the decks in a particular set, but to see how they fit in and supported the themes of the block, which would change and mature from first set to last. Using the “read more” tag gave the page a much more streamlined look, as did the more recent theme upgrade. And one proposed concept we’re deeply relieved never made it off the idea block, which was to playtest decks against random other precon decks from any set, not just the one that the deck to be tested came from. And there are still more to come- the next major upgrade will finally allow you to get a card-image popup rather than having to rely upon hotlink clickthroughs, which will make the site more readable still.
In much the same way, Wizards of the Coast was learning by trial and error when they released the Theme Decks of Tempest. While they weren’t quite the first preconstructed product ever put on the market, it was the first occurrence of a set of themed preconstructed packages that were directly tied to a specific set release. Unlike Ertai’s Lament, however, the lessons learned from these early efforts was that perhaps they needed to go in a reverse direction- rather tham improve, they needed to ease up on the reins a bit.
One of the metrics we developed in the Magic Beyond the Box series for Quiet Speculation was the U/60. A barometer of consistency, the U/60 measured the number of unique non-land cards in a given deck. The idea was that the most consistent decks you could build would have a U/60 rating of somewhere around 9.00, which essentially menas you took nine different cards and threw in four copies of each of them. A highlander deck running 24 land would be on the opposite end of the spectrum, clocking in with a U/60 of 36.00. Note that this isn’t a measure of quality- you wouldn’t, for example, be all that well served by running a full four copies of a card like Cruel Ultimatum. Instead, this measured consistency, the degree to which you would expect to see the same cards come up in a given match. With that 9.00 deck, you’d have a high degree of confidence in anticipating what you’d have access to. With that 36.00, it’s anything goes- which is part of the appeal of the highlander format for many.
If you plot the U/60 score for every block in the history of the game, it may come as no surprise that Tempest has the lowest, and in some cases by quite a margin. From a player’s gameplay perspective, this reliability had a high upside- you could get a good feel for a deck and learn what parts of it you could rely upon. If you had four Counterspells, you’d soon have a firm grasp of when to use them and how. If instead your countermagic suite was a Negate, a Cancel, an Essence Scatter, and a Lost in the Mist, you’d still have four cards to counter your opponent’s spells, but could hardly rely upon them- you’d never know which one(s) you might draw, and each of them have quite different applications.
From Wizards’ perspective, however, the four-of card in a precon deck was generally a bad idea. For one thing, if the player was given four of everything they needed, it diminished their incentive to buy more cards. For another, it decreased the impetus to deckbuild. If you have three of a card in a deck, and that card shows itself to be a strong inclusion, it’s natural to want to add a fourth. Aha, but what to take out! And that’s the moment the novice player- always a core audience for most preconstructed decks- gets their first taste of the customisation crucial to the game.
And thus Tempest block was the high-water-mark for consistent decks, with a U/60 score of 20.17. By way of contrast, Zendikar block- Magic’s most diverse set of decks when adjusted for the smaller deck size of 41 cards- carried a lofty U/60 score of 27.81. With that in mind, we’ll be looking today at a the Boros-coloured Flames of Rath, an aggressive deck with burn to spare. Although U/60 scores would rise and fall with different sets, none would ever attain quite the level of consistency that the decks of Tempest block did. Ironically, the only other block to get close would be the throwback Time Spiral, many years on.
Scorched by the Fire of Futility
As you can see by the deck’s curve, Flames of Rath is an intriguing hybrid of different archetypes, including one that you wouldn’t normally expect to see much of: Red stompy. Usually Green decks or those with an element of board-stall will have a bulge in the curve at the four-drop spot, but neither the dominany Red or supplementary White offer anything in the way of acceleration. How, then, does it expect you to get to that point where the deck optimises? In a nutshell: early aggression.
Things start out quite promisingly with a full playset of Mogg Fanatics. It’s important to remember that these used to be more powerful than they are today, ever since the rules of the game changed and damage was taken off the stack. When it was on the stack, you could do all sorts of nastiness with the Fanatic. You could, for example, block a 1/1 creature for the trade, then sacrifice the Fanatic to deal 1 point of damage to another 1/1- killing both. Alternately, you could block a 2/2, pop for the extra damage, and trade full stop. While those glory days are gone, you still get an early attacker that can get in for a few points of damage if your opponent is slow to set up, and can then hold a point of damage in reserve for any of their nuisance x/1 creatures or to help finish off your opponent.
Next up at the two-drop slot is a trio of Fireslingers. A pinger with a twist, this Wizard costs a full less than you’d ordinarily expect to pay for this sort of creature, but with a caveat- he damages you as well. Don’t let an aversion to damage stop you from taking full advantage of this guy- it helps to remember that life is a resource like any other, and if you win it doesn’t matter a whit if your life total is at 20 or at 1. Going up a rung in the ladder, we find a singleton Coiled Tinviper, a 2/1 first striker- not especially sexy, but there it is all the same.
It’s in the four-drops that things start to become very intriguing. One of the subthemes of Tempest was the mutability of creatures that were either made out of or influenced by flowstone, a semi-aqueous solid which made up large sections of the topography. In game terms, this was represented by the ability to adjust certain creatures’ power, typically at the expense of toughness. The Flowstone Giant gives you a choice of modes: its natural 3/3, or for the cost of make it a 5/1. Two other cards- the Sandstone Warrior and the Firefly- give you full-on firebreathing without any toughness drawback, and each carry a secondary ability that makes them even more dangerous.
You also have a pair of Lightning Elementals, 4/1’s with haste that are currently in the Standard environment thanks to a core set reprinting (Magic 2012, though they were also in Magic 2010 before taking a year off). Although these die to nearly anything, the trick is to time them right so as to catch your opponent lightly defended. They also can serve as formidable blockers- if things come to that. Getting down into the truly desperate we find a pair of Wild Wurms, a card sure to be a hit with those who love the Sorcerer’s Strongbox (hint: not us). A 5/4 body is not to be taken lightly, but bear in mind that you’ll only get this guy out for four mana 50% of the time. 25% of the time he’ll cost you eight mana. 12.5% of the time a whopping twelve mana. And so on. To be fair, outside of a few Dragons you don’t see a lot of economy in that range in Red, and usually they have a drawback like must attack every turn if able. Still, given the potential downside here you’d expect to get perhaps a touch more out of the Wurm than a 5/4 for four mana- and by today’s standards, you’d probably get it, too.
The final card in this range is the Soltari Guerrillas, a four-mana repeatable removal card. The Guerrillas’ shadow means against most decks you should have little problem getting in, and being able to send 3 damage against their creatures each turn can be a brutal pruning. That said, there’s a case to be made for simply letting them hit your opponent- after all, once your enemy is at 0 life then it doesn’t matter what they have on the table.
At the top of the pack we have a pair of five-drops in the Magmasaur and Flowstone Salamander. The Salamander breaks from the flowstone mould and instead has a pumpable damage ability against any creature blocking it. The Magmasaur, on the other hand, is a conditional Earthquake on a stick. With most of your deck in the lower toughness range, it might be a bit of a punt to hit the board, but having the option will prove itself useful on occasion. Useful enough for a rare slot? Probably not.
Steer the Rock
Complementing your creature attack is a truly impressive burn suite, which will let you sweep the lanes of defenders and make the most of your attacking options. A playset of Kindle give you some single-target instant-speed burn, giving you the ability to make the most of the spell by having the full allotment. A trio of Lightning Blasts deliver a static chunk- 4 damage at a pop. Those seven cards already put it well ahead of the norm, but we’re hardly finished. Your X-spell allotment is satisfied by a pair of Rolling Thunders, superbly-flexibile Fireballs for the cost of an easily-attainable extra . Finally, you have a singleton Searing Touch, which compensates for its piddling amount of damage by having the ability to be reusable thanks to its buyback mechanic.
Goblin Bombardment turns all of your creatures into at-will 1-damage pings- just the thing to get one last shot out of them in response to removal or chump-blocking, and a fine way to finish off a crippled foe. A pair of Disenchants give you some answer to artifacts or enchantments, while you get a combat trick in the form of a single Blood Frenzy. Looking for something more permanent? There’s also a Tahngarth’s Rage, giving one of your creatures a solid attacking bonus at the expense of blocking efficacy (no loss unless you’re already losing), and can even be used to kill off some nettlesome 1-toughness creature across the table in a pinch.
From there we also have a bit of damage prevention with the Squee’s Toy, something of a miss in this otherwise satisfyingly-aggressive deck. That misfit is more than made up for by the presence of a Furnace of Rath, which does one thing and that thing well. By doubling any and all damage assigned to each player, it hastens the game towards a final, satisfying conclusion. Taking double-damage from your opponent’s beaters isn’t pretty, but Flames pretty much stacks the deck by including so much removal- you should be able to burn down your opponent fairly quickly if you’ve been conservative with your burn spells.
It’s worth noting that the deck does include one nonbasic land, a Maze of Shadows, which essentially riffs off of Maze of Ith but on a narrower spectrum of creature. Since shadow creatures can be difficult to deal with, the ability to shut one down per turn is not to be dismissed.
And there you have it, a highly consistent burn/aggro deck with a splash of White to round it out. Join us next time when we take it into the field and see how it holds up against its competition!