Planechase: Elemental Thunder Review (Part 1 of 2)
When we last left the origin story of Planechase, Wizards of the Coast Brand Manager (now Director) Elaine Chase had spearheaded a marketing initiative to develop a multiplayer product for the casual Magic player. With the success of 2007’s Duel Decks inaugural release, pitting two tribal decks against one another, Wizards was once again ready to enter the preconstructed special products market, a position in the field that they had abandoned after 2001’s Deckmasters: Garfield vs Finkel release. As we’d see a few years later with Elder Dragon Highlander spawning Commander, Elaine found her inspiration from a loosely-defined format that was already present within the playing community: Chaos Magic. Could Wizards release a preconstructed product that might capture the same sense of randomness and uncertainty that made Chaos Magic so popular?
Having established their vision, Elaine next turned to Director of R&D Aaron Forsythe. As Mark Rosewater relates, the project was given the code name “Hopscotch,” and Forsythe looked to tie in the randomness of the game with the concept of planeswalking. Remember, this was in the 2008-09 time period, and planeswalking as a thematic concept was a relatively new thing (the planeswalker as a permanent type had only just been launched with 2007’s Lorwyn). Creative had rebooted the IP, moving planeswalkers from remote, semi-deity-like figures to a core “cast of characters” that could keep popping up in each set. What better way to show this, reasoned Forsythe, than to build the product around this sense of moving from plane to plane?
The meandering path from conception to release linked above is well worth a read for the curious, but Forsythe’s design proved to be quite close to the mark. There were some adjustments and innovations to the gameplay before they had settled on a finished product, but in September of 2009 Planechase had its debut. Although sadly we’re not privy to the sales figures, Wizards made good on its promise to support the product after launch by releasing a series of five promotional planar cards (Zendikar’s Tazeem, as well as Celestine Reef, Horizon Boughs, Mirrored Depths, and Tember City). Nevertheless, as the first of a new line of annual releases aimed at multiplayer, there was some question as to the success of the Planechase franchise. Those concerned, however, needn’t have worried. With the announcement that we’ll be seeing a second Planechase release in June of 2012, one can conclude that the initial series was successful enough to warrant returning to. And with the creation of new cards specific to the release that was the great innovation of Commander, we’ll be seeing some new cards in the next four Planechase decks.
And with that, we turn to the final Planechase deck from the initial launch, Elemental Thunder.
Listen to your Inner FIre
As the name indicates, Elemental Thunder is a tribal deck, the second of two in the Planechase release (the other being Zombie Empire). As a creature type, the Elemental had been present in Magic since the very beginnings of the game, Up until 2007, it had never really been given a tribal identity, instead simply being a ‘default bucket’ for certain creatures to fall into, similar to ‘Beast’ or ‘Horror.’ With the release of Lorwyn, however, they were given a much expanded footprint in Magic’s creature landscape. Indeed, remove Lorwyn/Shadowmoor from the equation and a deck like Elemental Thunder is quite likely a non-starter.
This influence is clear right off the bat as we look at the deck’s early drops. A pair of Flamekin Harbingers kick things off. A mere 1/1, the Harbinger is a card that is a welcome draw at most any point in the game thanks to its ability to tutor up one of its kinfolk when played (a sort of limited Goblin Recruiter effect). This was part of a cycle in Lorwyn, as the setting’s other major tribes were similarly given Harbingers as a way to reward tribal play. Lorwyn also gave us the deck’s two-drop, Smokebraider. A welcome dose of mana ramp for an archetype that has a tendency to be a bit greedy, the Smokebraider gives you two mana at yuor disposal, but only for playing Elementals or activating their effects (Elemental Thunder avoids including any tribal non-creature spells such as Consuming Bonfire).
The Lorwyn block reunion continues in the three-drops with the Taurean Mauler and Fertilid. The Mauler is a Shapeshifter, and unless dealt with it immediately it can become massive very quickly. Less aggressively-minded but arguably just as deadly is the Fertilid, an insect-like Elemental that helps ramp your manabase. Few players will be intimidated by the 2/2 body, but being able to cash it in for two land onto the battlefield is a much more sobering proposition.
From there we also see a pair of Rockslide Elementals, a pick-up from Shards of Alara. Like the Mauler, these seldom end up the size they began at when summoned, but in the Rockslide’s case it grows whenever another creature dies. Although the first strike helps, it can’t be overlooked that this is still a 1/1 for three mana. In order to be combat viable, it’s a card that’s going to need a gentle nudge in the right direction. If that nudge happens to be you getting maximal value out of the Bogardan Firefiend, so much the better! The Firefiend has a body that was born to die- a mere 2/1- but the upside is that you get a free creature-targeting Shock when it does.
The four-drops paint a much more diverse picture while giving you additional offensive weapons in the arsenal. Like the Rockslide Elemental and Taurean Mauler, the Forgotten Ancient (from Scourge) is a grow-your-own project, and it starts off even more helpless than the other two: a 0/3. Still, it’s also the easiest to grow, getting +1/+1 counters any time any player casts a spell. It also has the benefit of being able to move them onto other creatures, though only once per turn at a very narrow window. Mercadian Masques contributes the Cinder Elemental, a feeble 2/2 body that is essentially an instant-speed Blaze on a stick. From Guildpact we find the Rumbling Slum, one of the deck’s more robust beaters which carries a novel little drawback- each player slowly and steadily loses life each upkeep. Finally, we go back to Lorwyn for Briarhorn, a 3/3 which carries the evoke ability to deliver a Giant Growth (or just brings one with it when summoned).
So far we’ve seen a number of conditional creatures that offer potential, but deferred. At the top of the curve, the real lumber that the deck can bring starts to make itself known. We start off humbly enough with the 4/4 Silverglade Elemental, an important building block that helps you get your manabase to where it needs to be to be able to afford the deck’s most expensive spells and effects. The Bogardan Rager is a touch more modest as a 3/4, but it has flash and offers a +4/+0 power pump when it enters the battlefield. Far more intimidating is the 6/6 Tornado Elemental, which not only offers a massive burst of damage to clear the air of any fliers your opponent may have (Elemental Mastery has none, so there is little possibility of friendly fire here). In addition, it offers a hefty dose of unchumpable power.
For sheer size, the 7/7 Verdant Force takes the crown. Originally from Tempest, it has seen reprinting both in Core Sets as well as most recently in Premium Deck Series: Graveborn. It’s a fine addition here, though usually with token generators you’re looking for some sort of Overrun-style effect that rewards you for getting numbers to the table and you’ve got no such options in the deck. Still, there’s always a use for more creatures, a philosophy that will serve you in good stead with the next creature, Mirrodin’s Living Hive. Another token generator, the Hive triggers off of dealing combat damage to your opponent, which makes its trample all the more welcome. Finally, you have an Ivy Elemental, which can become frighteningly massive if played deep in the game, a fitting reward for all the ramping you’ve managed to do.
The Power of Muscle
While previous Planechase decks have had a large number of disparate effects, the noncreature support of Elemental Thunder can be broudly broken down into four standard categories: removal, creature augments, ramping, and miscellany.
The removal is a bit underwhelming for a base-Red deck. Assault // Battery gives you the option for a sorcery-speed Shock, though it can also be played for a 3/3 token creature when needed. Pyrotechnics– originally from Legends although heavily reprinted- gives you 4 damage to spread about however you see fit, giving you the opportunity to pick off one or more threats. If your opponent is playing with aerial threats, then you similarly have an opportunity to two-for-one them with a well-placed Branching Bolt. You also get a pair of X-spells in Blaze (single-target) and Savage Twister (all creatures). With many of your creatures built with high toughness, the Twister can often wipe out the bulk of your opponent’s forces while leaving yours relatively intact. Finally, there’s a Hull Breach for taking care of artifacts and/or enchantments.
Creature augments help make your creatures more durable in battle and damaging to your opponent. We’ve already seen a pair of them attached to creatures in the form of a Briarhorn and Bogardan Rager, but there’s still some room for development. For one thing, you get two pieces of equipment in the Mage Slayer and Mask of Memory. The Slayer makes sure that regardless of the outcome of an attack, your opponent will still be taking damage from the equipped beater. The Mask, on the other hand, is a card drawing engine that lets you not only be up a card with each attack that manages to get through to your opponent, but also can improve the quality of their hand overall.
For a more static effect, you have a Fires of Yavimaya. This enchantment gives all your creatures haste, and can be cashed in for a one-time combat bonus. Finally, you have a copy of Onslaught’s Tribal Unity. Although most of the time you’ll be choosing ‘Elemental’ with this, there will be times you might find it preferable to select ‘Saproling’ or ‘Insect’ to make your creature tokens more formidable.
For ramping, you have four cards that will help you steady out your deck’s growth, to help ensure you’re landing your fat closers in time to make a difference. Rampant Growth and its big brother, Explosive Vegetation both make appearances here. You also get a singleton copy of Search for Tomorrow as well as a Fertile Ground.
Finally, we have a trio of cards that defy classification, and so constitute our miscellany. First up is Beast Hunt, the deck’s “preview card” from Zendikar. It’s not an ideal card for a deck that has the second-least number of creatures in the set, and statistically less than one in three cards in the deck are creatures. That means it’s a whiff as often as not, and a poor choice here. If you’d rather simply draw cards rather than ‘Hunt’ through them for creatures, then Browbeat is the card for you. Although your opponent can deny you the draw for a cost of 5 life, either way you more than come out ahead for the mere three mana the spell costs. Lastly, there’s a Relentless Assault. One of the breakout cards from Visions, this card can spell the end for an unprepared opponent by giving you a second wave of attacks.
Like the other decks, you also get a package of nonbasic lands to help even things out. A pair of Terramorphic Expanses puts you up a basic land card of your choice, depending upon what’s most needed at the time. Gruul Turf enters the battlefield tapped and also compels you to return a land to your hand when it comes into play, but for all that it taps for two mana- one of each colour. Sadly, although Zendikar contributed a preview card to each deck, you don’t get a landfall card here to abuse with the Turf (a Territorial Baloth or Grazing Gladehart would have been perfect, but alas neither are Elementals). Finally, a simple dual land is present in the form of a Shivan Oasis.
Join us again in two days as we take the deck into the field to see how ity holds up. We’ll be back with our notes and a final score for Elemental Thunder then!