Duel Decks- Venser vs Koth: Koth’s Deck Review (Part 2 of 2)
It’s our last taste of Duel Decks: Venser vs Koth, and after getting the Golden Broom award last game for going 0-and-3, Venser will certainly be looking to take the scalp off his rival. But can Koth keep the fires burning long enough to make his opponent’s next blink, his last?
Jimi’s on the play to kick things off, and she leads with New Benalia, a land which lets her scry for 1 when it enters the battlefield. I play a Mountain. Next turn she bounces New Benalia to pay for her Azorius Chancery, passing over to me so that I can land a Pygmy Pyrosaur off of a second Mountain.
Now turn 3, she replays New Benalia, scrying for another before ending turn. Hitting my land drop, I attack in for 1 with the Pyrosaur, declining the pump to play a Fiery Hellhound. Next turn, she brings out her first creature- a Slith Strider. I swing back in with both creatures for 3, pumping the Pyrosaur for 1 to leave her at 15. I then shore up my backline with an Æther Membrane.
Back to Jimi on turn 5, she attacks in with her Slith. I know that blocking it means she gets a card, but with a start this aggressive its a price I’m willing to pay to ensure my offense is unimpeded. She replays the Slith Strider and ends her turn. Over to me, I send in the Firebreathers. Jimi opts to trade the Strider for my Pyrosaur, and though I have a burn card in hand I opt to permit the trade. I pump all of my mana into the Hellhound, carving off a 7-point slice of life off of Jimi’s spindown. She goes back up to 9 next turn when she brings out a Sejiri Refuge, then follows it up with a Primal Plasma (in 3/3 mode). Glad I saved the burn, I Searing Blaze the Plasma to kill it, then swing with my Hellhound for the win.
Again Jimi leads with New Benalia, then follows it up with an Island. I drop two Mountains in a row, permitting me to bring out a turn-2 Plated Geopede. Next turn Jimi counters with a Scroll Thief, but I topdeck a Mountain. This lets me blast her Thief with a Searing Blaze, then send my inflated Geopede in for 3. Jimi ends the turn at 14 life- a great start.
Now turn 4, she summons a Sky Spirit and passes. I drop another Mountain, letting me play my Vulshok Morningstar. When I go to equip it to my Geopede, however, Jimi signals she’s had enough with a Path to Exile. Tapped out, I fetch my consolation Mountain and pass. Over to Jimi, she attacks in for 2 with the Spirit, then casts an Angelic Shield. I then follow up with Anger, whose haste lets it turn sideways straightaway to put Jimi down to 12. I then add the Pygmy Pyrosaur and pass.
Jimi’s turn-6 Sejiri Refuge gives her a 1-life rebate, and she sends the Sky Spirit back across to put me at 16. For my part, I finally get to play my big gun: Koth of the Hammer. Using his builder to animate one of my Mountains, I send it in alongside Anger and the Pyrosaur. Jimi responds with a Safe Passage, dodging the ambush. Her next turn is a blank, leaving the Sky Spirit back on defense. I equip the Morningstar to the Pyrosaur, then send it in alongside an animated Mountain and Anger. Jimi blocks the weaponized Pyrosaur with her Sky Spirit, using a flashed-in Whitemane Lion to save it from death. Nevertheless, she still takes 6 and finds herself at 7 life.
Desperate, Jimi replays the Sky Spirit on turn 7, then attacks Koth with the Lion to keep him off his ultimate. Sadly for her, I’m holding a Seismic Strike, and have more than enough Mountains in play to reduce the Lion to smoldering bits. Next turn, I simply cash in Koth’s loyalty to go ultimate, killing Jimi with pings from the Mountains.
Jimi gets a more aggressive opening as she looks to avoid the sweep, leading with a Preordain followed by a Coral Fighters. My opening play is my turn-2 Vulshok Morningstar. Jimi goes up to 21 life next turn with a Sejiri Refuge, then puts me at 19 with the Fighters. She then fateseals my library, opting to put the top card on the bottom after a quick peek. For my part, I move to solve that nuisance with a Vulshok Sorcerer.
Now turn 4, Jimi attacks with the Fighters which draws the expected response, the Sorcerer seeing them off to an early retirement. She then plays a Sky Spirit and passes. Again having the good fortune to be hitting my drops, I trot out a Cosi’s Ravager with a land still in hand. Next turn, Jimi sends the Spirit in for 2, then rolls the dice on some Cache Raiders. I ping her at the end of her turn, putting her back down to 20. Back to me, I play a Mountain (enabling a ping from the Ravager thanks to its landfall ability), then ping the Raiders with my Sorcerer. This sets up a lethal Searing Blaze, both solving her 4/4 threat and dropping her life total down to 14 after a 2-point attack. I end on a high note, playing a Journeyer’s Kite. Nothing like a landfall creature and land every turn!
Sadly for her, Jimi’s turn 6 is a blank. Back to me, I play another land (ping!), then bring out- you guessed it- Koth of the Hammer. The big guy’s now made five appearances in six games, and the both of us know we’re in territory that’s well outside the curve. Koth animates a Mountain and I equip it with the Morningstar, swinging for 6. Jimi again is ready with a Safe Passage to put the kibosh on the turn’s offense. Back to her, she plays a Kor Cartographer, more for the body than the land. She attacks Koth with her Spirit, putting him down to 2 loyalty. I ping her with the Sorcerer at the end of turn, leaving her at 12. I then tap out to deploy a 4/10 Earth Servant, using Koth’s ability to untap one and send it in on the attack. This catches Jimi on the chin, and she’s left at 8.
Now turn 8, Jimi again attacks Koth with her Sky Spirit, and he’s now at 1. Desperate to buy time, she deploys a pair of Slith Striders, knowing full well she’s simply feeding my Sorcerer. I kill one of them at the end of her turn, then the other one during my own. It’s all for naught- Jimi’s overextended herself, and equipping the Morning Star to my Ravager lets me swing in for the win.
Thoughts & Analysis
Times like this, when we’ve seen such dominance in the results, give us quite the pause for thought. Given how much the decks are tweaked, tuned, and playtested well before they’re ever finalised at Wizards, we take it as a certain article of faith that the decks should be reasonably well-balanced. On the other hand, we’ve found imbalance before in Intro and Theme decks, and history too has shown Wizards to be somewhat short of omniscient when it comes to their own product. There’s only just so much testing that they can do.
That said, despite the results we’re understandably hesitant to declare a bias in favour of Koth’s deck, primarily because of how much of an impact the deck’s namesake planeswalker has had on proceedings. With many of these decks ending on or around turn 8 (which makes math easy), if on the draw you’d be looking at fifteen cards from your library: seven in your opening hand, and one each turn. There’s a high amount of fidelity in these figures, since Koth lacks the card drawing that Venser comes equipped with, so there’s no card-contingent variance there. Given that fifteen cards is one-quarter of a deck, it stands to reason that we had about a 25% of seeing him each game. Note that for simplicity’s sake we’re not digging too far into that- you can have a game all but won on turn 7 and draw him as your last card, and it would be counted as an occurrence, but 25% is a fair approximation.
Running out the simple math, you’d have about a 1.5% chance of seeing him in three straight games. The odds, naturally, go down from there. Magic is a game of variance, where even the unlikely happens because of how many games are played (for instance, ever drawn an opening hand of seven land?). In any event, the point here is that Venser’s deck suffered a bit because we saw so much of Koth, but that shouldn’t indicate that Venser’s deck is bad (or that Koth’s is too good).
One thing is certainly plain from our playtesting- Koth’s deck is quite a bit simpler than Venser’s. There’s not a lot of the subtlety and interactivity that was that deck’s hallmark, but what it lacks in complexity it more than makes up for in brute force. I had no problem in my games either killing off Jimi’s threats, or providing ones of my own so large that she played out the game on the back-foot, and the deck managed to do that fairly quickly. Today’s kills came on turns 6, 7, and 8, before Venser had managed to get much of his engine into play.
It’s a matter of balance, then, that has dictated Koth’s mana curve. Note, for instance, the matter of burn. We observed in the deck analysis that Koth curiously lacked any X-spells, which one would think would be a staple here given their versatility. But having now played the decks out, it becomes apparent that Koth does have X-spells…of a sort. With cards like Jaws of Stone and Seismic Strike, you are effectively converting all of your mana into direct damage. That all-or-nothing proposition allows the deck to put a bit of choke on effective damage output, since you can’t effectively cast some of your burn spells until a fixed point in the game. Even if you opt to use Koth as a mana accelerant (his -1 ability), you’re still hampered by how many Mountains you have in play. It’s clever design, helping to ensure that a mono-Red aggressive deck doesn’t completely dominate a two-colour controlling deck that needs some time to get established. That also goes some way to help explain the prevalence of expensive creatures and effects, though unlike your burn suite Koth certainly does help you ramp out your beaters if you’re fortunate enough to have him in play.
In any event, the biggest strike against Koth’s deck might be the feeling that ‘we’ve seen this before,’ something acknowledged by product designer Mark Gottlieb in his feature on the mothership who noted that this was the fourth mono-Red Duel Deck (Goblins, Chandra, and Dragons being the other three), not to mention the Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning. Venser’s deck was exciting not just because of its mechanics, but also because of its novelty. Koth, sadly, doesn’t get the same benefit. Overall, it’s an effective deck that is capable of some very strong starts, but just as easily can stall out in your hand when you draw too many of the abundant top-of-curve cards. This is Koth’s axis- playability- while Venser’s is synergy (are you optimising your flickering/saboteur cards, or are you drawing the weaker ones from each category). Taken together, it makes for a fun release. We’ve had a ton of fun with Venser vs Koth, and that’s not always something we can say about the Duel Deck releases.
Hits: Terrific flavour amongst selected cards gives the deck a certain brand cohesion; capable of explosive starts almost right out of the gate; simple and straightforward gameplay that can both appeal to the veteran yet be grasped by the novice
Misses: Heavy back-end curve with too many expensive cards can lead to have congestion and poor draws; lack of X-spells, while understandable from a balance perspective, denies you ability to live the dream of a massive Koth-doubled, game-ending Fireball; removal suite is powerful, but mostly out of early reach
OVERALL SCORE: 4.40/5.00