Planechase: Strike Force Review (Part 1 of 2)
Sometimes it’s hard for us to grasp just how long we’ve been reviewing preconstructed Magic, a new review piece every other day, steadily and methodically. When we decided to fill the narrow gap between Project Mirage Block and Avacyn Restored with the conclusion of our Planechase reviews, it was a little surprising that we had first started reviewing the set back in August of 2010! It’s hard to recall at this point why we moved on after only reviewing two of the decks (Metallic Dreams and Zombie Empire), though bouncing about was a little more common in the site’s earlier days than now. Still, with the next Planechase release right around the corner at the beginning of June, we’re delighted at the opportunity to close the book on the first iteration before getting to plunge into the next!
The Planechase set in many ways was the proper predecessor of 2011’s Commander release. First, there’s the obvious fact that both are part of Wizards’ annual “multiplayer casual” release schedule, which began with Planechase itself and also includes 2010’s Archenemy. Less obvious, perhaps, is the impact that the playing community itself had on the creation of Plancechase, for like Commander it drew from a casual ‘format’ that had been developed and sustained by the players, not Wizards. Just as Commander was the next evolutionary step for Elder Dragon Highlander, Planechase took “Chaos Magic” and ran with it.
If our reviews often highlight the unsung heroes of the game, today we’ll be adding another name to the rolls: Elaine Chase. Then the Brand Manager of Magic (presently Brand Director), Wizards had only somewhat recently begun expanding its line of products to capture the attention of the casual market. This wasn’t the first time Wizards had operated in this arena- the 1998-2001 period of time also saw annual releases of unique products like the commemorative Anthologies, the multiplayer Battle Royale, Beatdown, and Deckmasters: Garfield vs Finkel. After Deckmasters, however, the theatre of special products would go dark for six years, whether from poor reception to refocusing on the core brand it is impossible to say.
What is known, however, is that the dream might have been shelved, but it never truly died. A few years later, Wizards was back at the drawing board, developing the concept that would soon become known as Duel Decks. That line’s inaugural release, Duel Decks: Elves vs Goblins and it’s follow-up Duel Decks: Jace vs Chandra proved to be such successes that the Duel Decks line was firmly established. Undoubtedly, it also helped justify wading back into the casual-release arena. With the last multiplayer-specific release now nearly a decade old, the Brand team began a series of meetings to explore the possibility of an update. The leader of this initiative was Elaine Chase.
Elaine’s idea was to borrow a page from the Chaos Magic playbook. Unlike the Elder Dragon Highlander format of the time, there was (fittingly enough) no central structure or rules committee to Chaos Magic. Instead, the ‘format’ such as it was simply referred to games played normally with decks but set in an ever-changing and random environment. Once Chase and the rest of design were set on tapping into this style of play for their return to multiplayer support, they reached out to head of R&D Aaron Forsythe to get the ball rolling.
While we’ll conclude the history of Planechase with the last of the four decks, we’ll pause here to dive into the first of the final two offerings, the Red/White Strike Force. As before, our focus will be on the deck itself, absent use of the actual planes. The motive here is simple- the planes are designed to work with the deck to provide massively swingy, fun, and entertaining games, so we’re letting the planes in essence ‘cancel each other out.’ What we’re after is the decks, and how they play out.
Restore the Broken Pride
If you’re looking for a one-line summary of Strike Force, you could do worse than to call it a mash-up of Eventide’s Battle Blitz and Ravnica’s Charge of the Boros. White/Red combinations tend to focus around small, aggressive creatures with plenty of burn to back them up, and Strike Force is no exception.
As a nod to its multiplayer aspect, there is a small amount of conditional lifegain in the deck which scales well the more players there are in the game. Case in point is the deck’s sole one-drop opener, the Soul Warden. One of the problems aggressive decks has is that they are susceptible to running out of steam before a multiplayer game is finished. Although suboptimal in a two-player duel, having a small cushion of life can buy the deck a little more time to find its closers.
The Cleric aside, Strike Force finds its stride almost right out of the chute. The Battlegate Mimic is a 2/1 that becomes a 4/2 with first strike whenever you cast a spell that’s both Red and White. That’s far from a narrow condition here as the deck is packed with a ton of such cards, so you’ll often get a ton of mileage out of the humble Shapeshifter. Indeed, every other card in this drop slot qualifies, such as the Cerodon Yearling and pair of Boros Swiftblades.
You also get a single copy of the Boros Guildmage, which fittingly enough offers both haste and first strike for a small mana investment. The Guildmages were first introduced in Mirage, and had a cheaper activation cost in exchange for their needing to tap to trigger it. When Ravnica was released, the Guildmage concept was a perfect fit for the set’s flavour and was not only given a fresh coat of paint, but a mechanical update as well. The activation cost of their abilities were doubled from one mana to two, but no longer required the Guildmage to tap- meaning it could be used as many times as you had mana to pay for it. Additionally, both of the Guildmage’s abilities were unique to that particular guild. The cycle in Mirage had only one ability per allied colour, and the Guildmages shared them (for instance, note the Black-activated power pump present on both the Armorer and Shaper Guildmages). Incidentally, we’d next see another iteration of the model with Shards of Alara, whose sharded Battlemages would have single-use activated abilities (like Mirage), but unique to each shard (like Ravnica).
A pair of Eventide uncommons ring in the sparse three-drops. The Duergar Hedge-Mage offers the possibility of a three-for-one with both artifact and enchantment kill, preventing colour-pie bleed by requiring a requisite number of basic lands of the appropriate type. The Hearthfire Hobgoblin, on the other hand, lacks all such subtlety, preferring instead to hammer in with 2-power double strike. For some additional removal, you also have recourse to Kor Sanctifiers, which can take care of either an artifact or enchantment for an extra kicker cost. As Planechase preceded Zendikar, this was the deck’s “preview card” for that set.
The four-drop slot is even less robust still, though it does offer opportunities for value. The Flametongue Kavu is one of its eras iconic cards, thanks to its ability to two-for-one your opponent and leave behind a body with impressive power for only four mana. The Keldon Champion, on the other hand, also brings some burn to the table with him, but unlike the Kavu this can be directed at players only.
It’s at the top of the deck’s mana curve where things begin to really blossom, with four out of the five creatures here being rares. First up is the Menacing Ogre, from Onslaught. A 3/3, the Ogre can begin life as a 5/5 if you manage to win a bidding-type minigame. This is a card reminiscent of Browbeat which will often produce different results depending upon which stage of the game it is cast, as life often becomes more and more precious as the turns add up. The Balefire Liege– another Eventide import and one of Battle Blitz’s two rares- is an absolute workhorse here. Heavily supported by the preponderance of Red/White spells (which grant both effects), the Liege looks to make up for some of the shortfall in your creature count by pumping the ones you do manage to field.
Of course, if the ones you ‘manage to field’ have the size of your Bull Cerodon or Rorix Bladewing, it shouldn’t take you long to close out the game. Massive beaters with useful special abilities (haste, and either vigilance or flying), these do exactly what you would want in a closer- give your opponent a must-answer threat. Of course, it landing either of these isn’t enough to persuade your opponent that its time to call it a day, you have some added persuasion in the form of Razia, Boros Archangel. She gets all three of those abilities (haste, flying, and vigilance), as well as a nifty damage redirection ability. It’s the vigilance that makes the redirection truly unpleasant for your opponent, as otherwise you’d usually ignore it in favour of swinging with a 6-power evasive beatstick. But really, any of these will do nicely.
The Furnace Awaits
In any such Red/White deck, you are all but assured of finding at least two different kinds of noncreature support spells- removal and combat trickery. Strike Force delivers on both scores, and brings along plenty more. The burn package is very solid. A pair of Lightning Helixes offer both direct damage as well as a little morsel of lifegain, while Urza’s Saga’s Arc Lightning skips the life boost and simply lets you delivery 3 points of damage however you choose. Cone of Flame gives tyou the possibility of a three-for one, and as we’ve seen in our recent Weatherlight reviews the card can be a blowout waiting to happen.
You also get a pair of X-spells here in the form of a Rolling Thunder and Captain’s Maneuver. Like the Arc Lightning, Rolling Thunder lets you assign damage however you like, while the Maneuver is a bit unusual. For one thing, it’s highly reactive, relying upon you or your creatures sustaining damage to become effective. That said, being able to shift that damage to one of your opponent’s own creatures gives you tremendous opportunity to two-for-one them as you block one of their creatures, killing it with your blocker, and shifting its damage over to another of your opponent’s creatures. It’s not what you ordinarily think of as “burn,” but certainly can fill the role.
Were that your only removal options, we’ve be content with the array, but there’s still more to come! Orim’s Thunder destroys an artifact or enchantment, and if its kicker cost is paid it also sends damage to a creature. Oblivion Ring doesn’t bother with damage calculations, instead simply exiling a creature (or other permanent) from the battlefield. Another removal aura offered here is Prison Term. For a single extra , you get a signigicant upgrade over the de rigeur Pacifism. For one thing, it not only prevents the enchanted creature from attacking or blocking, but it also shuts down activated abilities. Further, it can be moved from creature to creature as circumstances dictate, though not at-will. Finally, there’s a copy of Order // Chaos, which serves as both removal as well as combat shenanigans, depending upon whichever you most need in the moment.
If the game’s past the state where pinpoint removal can aid you, you might be grateful for the presence of an Akroma’s Vengeance here. A board reset button, it takes care of any non-land permanent you’re likely to face. The weakness with such cards is that if the board state already favours you, it’s essentially a dead draw- why wipe when you’re ahead? Thanks to its cycling, you can flush this and draw another card.
As for combat, you’ve got a few tricks up your sleeve to make that unpredictable for your opponent. Reckless Charge gives any creature haste as well as a nice dollop of power, and thanks to its flashback cost you can get two uses out of it. Double Cleave, on the other hand, is a one-shot instant that gives any creature double strike. If you’re able to get past your opponent’s defenses and have one of your beefier creatures in play, this becomes almost like a burn spell as you ambush your oppoonent with a massive spike in incoming damage. It also can masquerade as removal to prevent a creature trade. And lastly, although not a surprise trick since it’s an aura, Glory of Warfare will make your opponent need to think a little harder about attacking and blocking assignments.
The remaining cards are a collection of odds-n-ends. The Relic of Progenitus is there as a “hate” card against graveyards, particularly that of the Zombie Empire deck. Since it can be cashed in for a card if its services are not needed, it’s an easy inclusion. Goblin Offensive potentially gives you a ton of 1/1 token creatures, and is a great card for breaking through a red zone stall to get in those last elusive few points of damage. The Boros Signet offers a bit of ana ramp and fixing, while Congregate is the last representative of the deck’s minor lifegain subtheme. Finally, the deck’s last two rare cards can make the game into a complete blowout. Tempest’s Furnace of Rath doubles all damage on the table, though it affects you as much as any of your opponents. Insurrection, on the other hand, is strictly asymmetrical, giving you control of every creature on the board. Particularly in multiplayer, this card can close out an opponent in a single turn.
It’s also important to note that the deck carries a trio of nonbasic lands, giving you two copies of each. Terramorphic Expanse is a simple crack-fetch, while Boros Garrison offers you both colours of your deck at the cost of having to return a land to your hand when you play it and coming into play tapped. Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion only provides colourless mana, but also gives you the ability to offer double strike to any of your army.
That’s it for the deck- our next step is to take it into battle against one of its peers and see how it hols up. See you in a couple days!