Duel Decks- Venser vs Koth: Koth’s Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
When Duel Decks: Venser vs Koth was announced last year, it raised more than a few eyebrows from a flavour perspective. Previous releases of the Duel Decks series had centered around conflicts between tribes, groups, or planeswalkers, and indeed that identity was the raison d’etre of the entire concept of a “duel deck.” You had the heroic Nacatl, Ajani, squaring off against the operatic arch-villain, Nicol Bolas, scheming to turn the entire plane of Alara to his own ends. Garruk and Liliana squared off in the chase for an eldtritch artifact, as seen in one of Magic’s webcomics. Phyrexia and The Coalition recreated one of the storyline’s greatest conflicts, while others paired tribes which historically had opposed one another, such as Knights and Dragons.
Then in September of 2010, a release came along which deviated from the established formula when Duel Decks: Elspeth vs Tezzeret hit store shelves. Here were two characters which, while in philosophical opposition with one another, had yet to cross swords. To be certain, it doesn’t take much imagination to see them locked in combat, with Elspeth trying to save the besieged plane of Mirrodin while Tezzeret was there acting as a proxy of Bolas’s, but with Scars of Mirrodin net yet released, the battle required a bit of creative extrapolation (if you cared for such things at all- many are perfectly happy to see the backstory as a minor contributor to their enjoyment of the game).
This deviation goes a step further with Venser vs Koth. With both characters ostensibly allies in the struggle for Mirrodin, the metallic plane fighting for its very existence against the Phyrexians, what we find in our Duel Deck is a pair of heroes having a bit of a disagreement about methodology. While united in their desire to aid Mirrodin, Venser felt that they needed to seek out Karn, the planeswalking Silver Golem who had not only created the plane in the first place, but also was unknowingly responsible for its corruption. Of course, this meant descending into the earth’s depths, leaving the Mirrans above on their own against the depredations of the Phyrexians. It was this prospect- abandoning his people to their fate- that drew the ire of Koth. The story continues in the poorly-reviewed book The Quest for Karn, by the much-malinged Robert Wintermute, but this is enough to get the idea of what Wizards was going for here.
While this perhaps loses some of the feeling of epic heroism that colours previous releases, it should not take much away from the product itself, giving you a deck for each planeswalker that’s tailored around them. As we noted in Venser’s deck review, the degree to which the decks are built around their planeswalker has never been higher, as both of Venser’s non-ultimate abilities synergise seamlessly with the rest of his deck. In looking at Koth’s collection of sixty cards, it begs the question: do we find the same here?
To answer that, we should first take a look at Koth himself. Aside from the superb new art the planeswalker gets (as did Venser), we find Koth has three things in play. First, his builder ability lets you transform any Mountain into a 4/4 creature for the turn. This is a fairly basic- if useful- ability, and not one that requires any great depth of support in the deck. It’s a free creature in an aggressive deck, and since planeswalker abilities resolve at sorcery speed, we’ll only be animating lands on our own turn. The tactic here couldn’t be more plain: attack.
The next ability is his -2, and this adds a solid chunk of mana into our mana pool (generally at least four, since that’s Koth’s casting cost). There are two ways that this can be used. The first way is to enable us to cast larger spells and creatures, acting as a sort of reusable mana ramping (though use it twice without building him up and it will cost you the card). The other is to fuel mana sinks such as X-spells, one of Red’s specialities. Optimally, we’ll see some of both in the deck, though we’ll want to mind the ratio of one to the other. X-spells have little downside- even if you’re a bit light on mana, they can still resolve. Expensive spells and creatures, however, will always sit dead in your hand until you can cast them. With only one copy of the respective planeswalker in each Duel Deck, you can never rely on seeing them in a given game. Their appearance must always be seen as a bonus, and their decks must stand on their own without them.
Naturally, once you’ve gone ultimate with Koth you should have the game wrapped up in very short order, so there’s little need to harness that ability to the rest of the deck. But as we explore Koth’s offering, we’ll want to see how the card selection reinforces the themes he’s established. After all, this is his deck!
Heart of Fire
The first thing we note is that Koth’s deck is less aggressive than you might expect from a mono-Red deck. This is less “Aggro Red,” and perhaps a bit more “Big Red,” particularly with the creatures at the very top of the curve. Considering what we observed about Koth, this isn’t especially surprising, though if there isn’t enough ramp support it might be a bit troubling. Venser’s deck is the sort of gimmicky control model that thrives on extra time. If you’re playing against that sort of opponent, you need to be sure that you’re benefitting from the extra turns more than they are, or the cause is lost.
The deck does open with some aggressive options in a pair of Plated Geopedes. Another card with fantastic new art, the Geopedes harness the landfall ability from Zendikar to present a very dangerous early threat that has a tendency to taper off once you hit the midgame, where land drops typically begin to slow down. Landfall here is a very good choice of mechanic, given that the flavourful theme of Koth is someone who wields earth and fire magic. There’s also a singleton Pygmy Pyrosaur, which essentially is a burn spell on a stick given that no matter how much you pump it, you’re not going to get past 1 toughness without some sort of assistance. But it does give us the first appearance of the mana sinks mentioned above, and left unchecked it can swing for a frightening amount of damage quickly in a mono-coloured deck.
More Firebreathing shenanigans abound in the three-drop slot as we find a pair of Fiery Hellhounds. A new card from Magic 2010, the Hellhound is another good place to stash extra mana, and you’ll often find that creatures with pumpable power can have a disruptive effect on the battlefield as your opponent must calculate the creature’s potential damage output each time they go to assign blockers. You also get a Vulshok Sorcerer here, the perfect pinger for the deck. Others in the class, such as the Prodigal Pyromancer, often are less Red-heavy to cast, but suffer from summoning sickness which gives your opponent fair warning. Not so the Sorcerer, and her extra level of colour-commitment is irrelevant here.
Still in the three-drops we find a pair of Pilgrim’s Eyes. Not especially impressive on their own, their greatest virtue is in fetching up a land for you. As we’ll see, there are a number of such effects sprinkled throughout Koth’s deck, which not only help trigger your landfall cards more consistently, but also lets you ramp into your more expensive offerings. The final creature in this slot is a bit of a controversial choice: Planar Chaos’s Æther Membrane. An interesting card that flirts with Blue’s slice of the colour pie, this is a card meant to discourage attack. That seems like a bit of a misfit in an aggressive Red strategy, and it’s only compounded by the battlefield effect of cards that disincentivise attack. If even reasonable attack becomes profitable, then that tends to encourage “turtling,” where you’re staring at a row of untapped creatures on the other side of the table. With Venser’s deck happy to trade damage for time, this seems like a card which perhaps concedes too much to your opponent. Its saving grace is that it is one of the few ways you’ll have to deal with assault in the air, which is one of the paths Venser’s deck looks to take once it shifts gears and looks to begin dealing damage.
As we ascend the deck’s mana curve to the four-drops, we find some interesting options. The Bloodfire Kavu is a mediocre body, but it comes equipped with triggerable Pyroclasm. With many of your own bodies susceptible to the damage, you’ll want to play this card rather carefully. Anger, on the other hand, is one which you’ll be quite happy to sloppily throw at your opponent, for its benefit is far greater dead than alive. There’s no chance of you not having the requisite Mountain in play, and giving all of your future summons haste changes the threat calculus quite a bit more heavily in your favour.
We find another landfall creature here as well in the Cosi’s Ravager. Although another underwhelming 2/2 for four mana, the Ravager gives your deck added reach- always a valuable commodity when facing decks which can mount a formidable defense. Coupled with the deck’s ability to find Mountains without having to rely solely upon the draw, and this is another offensive nuisance even if it never manages to turn sideways. A more dangerous body is found in the Vulshok Berserker, who boasts an extra point of power over the Ravager. Coupled with haste, this offers an effective surprise attacker that can punish Venser for overextending, or exploit vulnerabilities in his defense. The final card in this packed drop-slot is a Stone Giant, a very old card given a long-verdue update in Magic 2010. Although its ability comes at a steep price- it kills whatever it throws- like the Ravager it’s reach is worth the cost if your opponent is on the ropes. As a 3/4 body, it’s not the worst deal on its own in a colour that often struggles to find economical midrange creatures.
The Torchling welcomes us into the top of the mana curve. Another “mana sink” creature, the Torchling is another Planar Chaos riff off of a classic card, Urza’s Saga’s Morphling. Although there are some limits on how big it can pump itself to become, its redirection ability can make it difficult to contend with, and the built-in Lure effect is good for surgically striking an opponent’s annoying noncombatant utility creature. Next is is the third (and final) landfall creature in the deck, though we’ll see the mechanic one more time before we’re through. A sizable 4/4 body with conditional flying, the Geyser Glider gives you another reason to be happy seeing Mountains later in the game. The last five-drop in the deck is the Lithophage, from Mercadian Masques. Your single largest creature, it comes at a steep cost- a Mountain every turn. Still, with a 7/7 in play you can expect the game should be moving very quickly towards its conclusion.
We continue on to the six-drops with a Chartooth Cougar, another 4/4 body with Firebreathing and the ability to be cycled at any point for a Mountain. Coldsnap’s Greater Stone Spirit– also 4/4- has an unusual blocking restriction you don’t see much of, and the ability to grant a sort of temporary creature aura. Costing three mana to activate, you’ll be unlikely to use it more than once a turn (leaving the rest open for the offensive pump), but the toughness boost can also help keep a creature alive through an attempted trade in combat. And then, of course, there’s the Earth Servant, a card that directly synergises with how many Mountains you have in play. This is only moderately useful, since you’ll be facing a deck that can simply exile away your creatures and doesn’t rely upon direct damage for its removal.
Finally, we find the Bloodfire Colossus, which in many ways is simply a triple-strength Bloodfire Kavu. One significant difference worth noting, however, is that unlike the Kavu, the damage the Colossus can trigger does hit the players in addition to the creatures. All in all, its a rather interesting display of force, though its hard to escape the thought that there’s just too much fat on the back end of the mana curve for Koth to get the pace he needs to perform. That said, there’s still plenty of support to get through.
Blood of Lava
Unlike Koth’s creature package, the noncreature support cards easily fall into three main categories. The first of these is the one you’d most expect- burn- and plenty of it. Here too we see the “Mountains matter” theme kick into high gear with Seismic Strike, Spire Barrage, and Jaws of Stone all offering damage output commensurate with how many Mountains you’ve managed to land. Searing Blaze taps into the deck’s landfall subtheme, while Volley of Boulders acts as your big gun, capable of hitting twice thanks to its flashback cost. Should the game go long into its endgame, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you could crush your opponent with this if you have Koth already in play, casting it then flashing it back for 12 damage.
Creature and combat augments are the second category, another Red staple. Downhill Charge also reinforces the Mountains theme, while the Vulshok Battlegear and Morningstar are flavourful inclusions brought along as a nod to Koth’s heritage. Lastly, there’s land-fetch to help you get your Mountains up faster (as well as hit landfall triggers with some reliability). Here we find an Armillary Sphere, Journeyer’s Kite, and pair of Wayfarer’s Baubles.
It should come as little surprise that in addition to Koth of the Hammer, the rest of the deck is made up solely of Mountains- not a nonbasic land in sight. So while perhaps less engaging in terms of complexity than its oppositional counterpart, and puzzlingly devoid of any X-spells, we’ll be reserving judgment until we’ve seen how the deck performs in combat. Join us in two days’ time, when we put both decks to the test and issue final scores!