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April 9, 2012

Weatherlight: Fiery Fury Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

In January of 2009, Mark Rosewater of Wizards R&D devoted his weekly column on the mothership to a feature called “Nuts & Bolts.” Ordinarily, Making Magic tends to discuss how different aspects of the game come about: how certain cards come into being, how themes and mechanics found their way into certain sets, colour pie considerations, and so on. But this time, Rosewater decided to delve a little deeper into the design process, and do a column on the actual methodology R&D uses to create Magic sets. It was a bit of a risk- the feature was about “card numbering” in the internal playtesting card mockups. Narrow and specialised, yes, but like most any other aspect of the game of Magic there is a segment of the player base that takes great interest in the actual process of development.

Reader feedback deemed the venture a success, so Rosewater decreed that it would be an annual event. For those aspiring (and established) game designers who wanted to know about the internal workings of creating one of the world’s most successful games, the gates would be thrown open once a year for some aspect of the process. And so when February of 2010 rolled around, readers of Making Magic were treated to the next installment, and this time the concept of a “design skeleton” was put under the microscope.

A design skeleton, Rosewater explained, is like the blueprint for a house. With the number of cards each set is permitted to have being a relatively fixed value, how many of these are commons? How many uncommons, rares, and mythics? Of those, how many are creatures? How many spells? Artifacts? Nonbasic lands? Set generation is typically not a spontaneous act of creation, where you sit down and “just start making cards.” Instead, having this framework from the outset allows you to receive guidance on what cards need to be made to make the set the best it can be. If this is true for one creative act (set design), does it not stand to reason, then, that it might also be true for another?

What if, say, you had a story skeleton? Not so much an outline of where you wanted your story to go, but something bigger, something that had looked at all of the elements common in human storytelling throughout the ages and saw what they had common amongst them. If you could identify tropes and archetypes that had persisted from culture to culture over time, you could begin to find what sorts of stories most resonated with people.

Enter Joseph Campbell.

Campbell (1904-1987)  was a towering academic figure who is perhaps best known for his work on comparative religion and mythology. One of his theories was that of the “monomyth,” that there was a basic pattern evident in the mythologies of the world, one which transcended culture and instead spoke to the very heart of the human condition. Because of our innate compulsion to seek out the truth of reality and the universe, the monomyth involves the idea of a transformative journey. Wrote Campbell,

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

One of the most famous examples of the monomyth finding employ at storycrafting was a movie which brought some measure of fame and recognition to Campbell’s ideas: Star Wars. And when Mark Rosewater and Magic editor Michael Ryan partnered to weave a saga around the Magic: the Gathering universe, they too turned to Campbell’s story elements and archetypes to guide them.

As mentioned before, Mirage and Visions were originally part of one set, Menagerie, but were then fleshed out and expended into two. With the new “block structure” what Wizards was looking to adhere to, that left a vacancy for the final explansion in the block. Meanwhile, Rosewater and company were looking for a set to introduce their dramatis personae for the epic, three-act play they wanted to tell. Although designed independently of Mirage and Visions, elements of those sets were retained to give the set block cohesion. Everything was pointing in one direction…

And thus, the Weatherlight Saga hatched from the Mirage egg.

A Voice That Crackles Like Fire

Now it’s time for a story on a much smaller scale, the tale of a mono-Red Weatherlight Theme Deck filled with aggressive beaters and burn spells. Welcome to Fiery Fury!

The first thing we note right off the bat is something we’ve seen little of throughout Mirage block: a one-drop presence. Fiery Fury provides you with two options. First is the Goblin Vandal, a saboteur that can trade dealing combat damage for artifact destruction. Although the life expectancy for a 1/1 in the red zone isn’t all that long, it is helped considerably by two factors. First, an aggressive deck will want to land higher-priority targets quickly, so the Vandal can occasionally sneak through by merit of being too insignificant to block. Second, with a massive concentration of firepower in the noncreature support, Fiery Fury can often simply scour the opponent’s defenses away. Absent any unblockability shenanigans, the Vandal needs to get through on its own, and here at least it has a fighting chance.

The other one-drop available to you is the Roc Hatchling, a 0/1 that ‘hatches’ four turns later into a 3/3 flier. In a sense, this card is very much a predecessor for suspend, as you’ll be doing next to nothing with the Roc Hatchling until the last ‘shell counter’ has been removed. Played from the opening hand, this gives you a turn-5 flier, effectively hasted though without the accompanying element of surprise. This puts the Hatchling a bit behind the curve, though much like suspend it can act as a hedge against poor starts and faltering manabases, for after your initial  you need not pay anything else. On the other hand, sitting on the board rather than in your hand does increase its early vulnerability, so the Hatchling can certainly go either way.

These early options are more gimmicks than the actual tip of the spear, however, a position reinforced by the full absence of any two-drops to support them (though as we’ll soon see, the two-drop slot is far from empty). The three-drops, on the other hand, are bristling with aggression. You first get a three-mana 3/3, something you don’t always expect to see in Red. That makes the trio of Bloodrock Cyclopes an impressive buy, and though saddled with the traditional Red drawback of “must attack if able,” that’s what you’ll be wanting to do with it anyway.

The remaining trio of cards here are your surprise options, for both the Viashino Sandstalker (two copies) and Suq’Ata Lancer (a singleton) come equipped with haste. The Lancer is a defensive thorn thanks to the block’s flanking ability, meaning it can profitably trade out with an x/3 creature. The Sandstalker must be recast each turn you need its services, but in return you get a very solid 4 power on the swing.

Suq'Ata Lancer

The aggressive, surprise-attacker subtheme continues into your four-drops, where nearly every card comes with haste. The Lava Hounds are a four-mana 4/4 that attack straightaway, though they exact a hefty toll for the privilege. Four life is no small sum, making the Hounds a card not for the faint of heart. But it’s well within Red’s philosophy to trade long-term advantage for short-term gain, and so your life total is best viewed as just another resource here. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you ended the game at 20 life or 2, and the Hounds will certainly help you do just that.

For a sizable body without the life payment you get a Talruum Minotaur, which in comparison with the Hounds illustrates exactly that that 4 life buys you (an extra +1/+1). Two of these are a solid arrow in the quiver, and rounding out the slot is a singleton Wildfire Emissary. A fine mana sink if an expensive one (two mana per point of power), its protection from White doesn’t have a ton of relevance in this environment, though it will keep the Emissary free of Pacifisms.

Finally, we find a singleton copy of the Hulking Cyclops as the sole top-of-curve closer. Given how much lard the Mirage block decks have packed into closers’ slots, seeing a single, sensible copy here is quite refreshing. A scaled version of the Bloodrock Cyclops, it keeps the same mana-to-power ratio as its weaker forebear, but also has the same inability to block. Again, if you’ve got a 5/5 sitting on the board, you’ll want to be attacking with it, especially in an aggressive framework like this one.

A Proper Retort

As we’ve often seen, a deck with abundant removal often finds that removal channeled into narrower circumstances where it’s useful as a way to provide some balance to the deck. The classic example of this is New Phyrexia’s Feast of Flesh, which was brimming with ways to kill creatures but didn’t always make it easy. Geth’s Verdict gave an opponent the luxury of choice, for instance, while Parasitic Implant did the job but let your opponent untap with the targeted creature one more time. We saw it again in Odyssey’s Pressure Cooker, using cumulative spells like Flame Burst or Ghastly Demise which relied upon the state of your graveyard.

Fiery Fury not only shatters the mould, it melts it down for slag. Burn is often about as unconditional a removal method you could find- often, its restrictions are generally simple (in summary: can it target creatures, players, or both?). Consequently, Theme Decks tend to be a touch conservative with it in terms of how much to include. Fiery Fury has no such compunction- outside the trio of Mind Stones for early mana acceleration and later card drawing, every single card here is burn, burn, glorious burn!

Let’s start with the basic, straightforward 3-damage spell, Incinerate. This is your bread-and-butter burn spell, which tends to cycle through with Lightning Bolt and Shock as the stock damage card in sets. The deck gives you three, as well as two copies of one of the game’s best-ever burn spells, Fireblast. Don’t let its high mana cost fool you, Fireblast isn’t usually meant to be hardcast for six mana. Instead, it provides a great way to turn land into raw resources later in the game, when you’ve already played all you need. Given that you can use the Mountains before popping them to this spell, it’s often used as a finisher on a wounded opponent after another burn spell- such as an X-spell like Kaervek’s Torch. Again, two copies are included, and they are a finisher par excellence.

Next we find a singleton copy of Thunderbolt, an anti-flyer burn spell. That’s narrow enough to be annoying, but Thunderbolt luckily can also target players. Still, any larger creatures your opponent plays might outsize your burn’s effective reach (except for the Torches, where the only limit is your mana). That’s where Spitting Earth comes in. Cards like this are something like faux X-spells, as they simulate you tapping out with everything, but in return for the conditionality they actually can cost quite a bit less. The deck gives you a pair here.

Viashino Sandstalker

This would be more than enough burn to make us delighted in any deck, but you still have one more group of cards to go: the blowouts. These are cards which can hit multiple targets with a single casting, giving you not only powerful board control but also card advantage over your opponent. Consider the Cone of Flame– three targets! You might not find that perfect set of circumstances that sees your opponent lining up with a 1/1, 2/2, and 3/3, but this can often solve two of your problems and you can always send one of the three damage pulses towards your opponent. This doesn’t come cheaply- five mana- but again we see Fiery Fury’s generosity- you get a trio of them!

Next in this class we find Firestorm, one of the deck’s two rares. Firestorm is brutally expensive, requiring a sacrifice of cards from your hand. This means that a key to playing Fiery Fury well is to conserve less-useful cards in hand rather than playing them on the board. This mainly applies to excess lands, of course, but by the same token burn should always be conserved until the point of best use. Novice players often make the mistake of throwing burn at their opponent early, then finding they might have used it more wisely against some threat the opponent has deployed. Remember too that Firestorm’s discard is an additional casting cost, so if it gets countered, you still lose the cards. Wait until the Blue mage is tapped out- it’s otherwise likely not worth the risk of Mind Sludging yourself.

Finally, we come to the Heart of Bogardan, the other rare and one of the more unique burn cards in the deck as it’s neither a sorcery nor an instant: it’s an enchantment. Heart of Bogardan uses the cumulative upkeep mechanic to power up into one large blast. First seen in Ice Age, cumulative upkeep initially was a way to offer powerful permanents at lower costs, giving them a shelf life where ordinarily permanents tend to stick around. It filled its niche well enough that it was retained after Alliances, though it was used on only a handful of cards in Mirage and Visions. For Weatherlight, Wizards wanted to dive more deeply into what could be done with it. Rather than simply being an expiration date on a permanent, the mechanic itself was integrated into the functioning of the card. The Mwonvuli Ooze, for example, derived its power and toughness from how many age counters it had on it, while cards like Psychic Vortex examined alternative upkeep costs beyond simple mana payments. The Heart of Bogardan is intriguing in that it does absolutely nothing when played, but builds up a ‘charge’ over time that can be set off on your opponent. Since you can only trigger the boom during your upkeep (by declining to play the cumulative upkeep cost), it does leave it vulnerable to Green and White mages, those who traditionally have had the most ease at solving enchantment-based threats. If you’re able to keep it up, however, in  four turns you’re looking at a 6-point blast to your opponent and all their creatures- something few opponents can withstand.

The only other card of note here is the Crystal Vein, a card that recently resurfaced in Premium Deck Series: Graveborn. Since your deck is mono-coloured, there’s little downside towards running a colourless land, and the ability to pop for one more mana in a pinch gives your deck that added bit of reach. Overall, this might be one of the most exciting decks we’ve seen in all of Project Mirage Block thanks to the massive burn package, and we can’t wait to get it into the field for testing. We’ll give it a go and report back on the result.

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