Avacyn Restored: Fiery Dawn Review (Part 1 of 2)
Gamers of a certain age might recall with fondness some of the great computer and console games when the RPG genre was in its relative infancy, like Wizardry, Bard’s Tale, and Might & Magic. One element that many of them had in common was a reliance on the old “random monster tables” from the role-playing games they evolved from. Exploring a new room? Need a monster? Roll a die, consult the table, and voila! Instant villain! Of course, the cost of such convenience was the virtual abandonment of any sort of flavourful cohesion, for what possible reason could there be for encountering a band of two faeries, an orc, a stirge, a rust monster, and a brown pudding all in one room, and all united in their singular desire to destroy you? Although such things may keep the flavour-focused Vorthos up at night, for most gamers it was good for a chuckle before you commenced your attack.
Most Magic decks tend to take a page from the same playbook, though the tie-in to being a planeswalker summoning creatures skirts some of the obvious absurdity of them just happening to be hanging around in the same dungeon room, sipping stale coffee and waiting for adventurers. By way of example, the Red/White deck from Dark Ascension, Swift Justice, has little cohestion between its creatures other than for what they can provide a relatively aggressive, attacking framework. Vampires and Humans, Angels and Devils, dogs and cats living together… this was a deck that had a little bit of everything, clearly the experiences of a well-traveled planeswalker!
By way of contrast, today’s Red/White deck, Avacyn Restored’s Fiery Dawn, instead presents a much more cohesive narrative, echoing the theme of the set overall. After the darkest hour, dawn has at last come, and it is time for the Humans to rise up against the oppressions the night has brought. Avacyn has returned, freed from the Helvault by Thalia, herself held at moral swordpoint by the diabolical machinations of Liliana Vess. With Avacyn’s release, however, comes freedom for the many Demons that the Angels had imprisoned within it. In the end, has Innistrad simply swapped one set of evils for another? The future is impossible to predict, but for the present there is a burning retribution to be exacted.
One of the most obvious indications of humanity’s resurgence is in the very colours of the deck. In Innistrad/Dark Ascension, Humans were found circling their wagons in the White and Green segments of the colour pie. Indeed, Innistrad’s tribal Human deck, Repel the Dark, evokes the plight of its tribe in both its colour selection as well as its name. As Dark Ascension showed us, “repelling the dark” was largely aspirational rather than actual in nature, as by then humanity was on the brink of extinction. There was a will to fight rather than to go meekly and quietly, but all the same there was little doubt in the outcome. If you found Humans lurking about in Red, well, they were precisely the sort of Humans you’d least want to find yourself alone with (Werewolves, cultists, and mutants oh my!).
Not anymore. The Humans are back.
And they’re pissed.
Discontent is a Powerful Weapon
Easily the most outright-aggressive deck of the five, Fiery Dawn looks to live up to its name with a host of smaller creatures that interact with one another to let them punch above their weight. Our experiences with Avacyn Restored have shown it to be a slower, more deliberate environment, so in some ways this deck will look to be the proverbial bull in the china shop.
It begins quite simply enough with a trio of one-drops. Elite Vanguards are staples in this sort of deck, and we see their employ quite often even at the Event Deck level (Hold the Line had two, while War of Attrition brought along a full playset). You also get a Somberwald Vigilante, a 1/1 that has a ping-on-block effect that renders a block by any x/1 creature generally unprofitable, and can even let it trade up to an x/2 on the offense. Because of the deck’s tribal synergies, these early beaters don’t lose their effectiveness quite so readily as the game goes into its later stages. A turn-7 one-drop may not be what you were hoping for, but given the number of enters-the-battlefiend effects we’ll be seeing amongst the more expensive cards, you can often get more out of your one-drop than just its body.
As we enter the two-drop territory, note the pair of Kruin Strikers for instance. A simple 2/1, they get quite a boost from another creature entering the battlefield. Though their weak toughness often means that their first attack may well be their last, the trample is especially relevant and if they don’t take down something larger that’s shoved in front of them, they should be scoring points against your opponent. Next here is the Thraben Valiant, another 2/1. Unlike the Strikers the Valiant is as big as he will ever get (unassisted, at least), but his vigilance means that you’ll get double-duty out of him. If instead you’re looking for something just a bit more robust, look no further than the Moorland Inquisitor, which enters play as a 2/2. Although its first strike must be activated (and it’s a touch costly), it’s a good mana sink for later in the game when you have more mana open than things to spend it on. Aggressive decks such as this tend to risk running out of steam as the game goes on, so having cards that let you make use of it is a definite plus. Like the Strikers, Fiery Dawn gives you a pair each of the Valiant and Inquisitor.
All this is well and good, but the deck really starts to go into a higher gear in the three-drop range, something we similarly saw in the equally-slower Mirage block environment. We tend to equate aggro decks with one- and two-drops, but in a slower environment the real push tends to be slid back a notch (for instance, Ride Like the Wind– also a Red/White deck- relied heavily upon its assemblage of three-drop flank-Knights). We begin here with a pair of Benalish Veterans, core set cards from Magic 2012 that fit right in with the deck’s philosophy. From the core set again we also take a Manic Vandal, to give the deck just a touch of artifact hate. Have a care that your opponent is playing artifacts, however, as the Vandal’s single-mindedness at his task is indicated by the lack of the word “may.” As Fiery Dawn only packs a single artifact, this should seldom be a concern. If artifacts and/or enchantments do pose a worry, you can harness reusable hate in the form of a Devout Chaplain.
Back to the battlefield, we find a couple more cards here that can make a real impact. The Riot Ringleader is so central to the deck’s aims that you find three copies here (three being the Intro Pack’s equivalent of four). Another three-mana 2/2, she carries a version of Mirrodin Besieged’s battle cry which affects even her. The Kessig Malcontents, meanwhile, reward you for saturating your board with Humans by blasting your opponent with burn. Although in a Constructed world there are checks in place to punish creature overcommittment, your chances of bumping up against a Pyroclasm or other board-sweeper here are nil. That gives you the freedom to make the Malcontents pay for themselves with a Lava Axe effect, with a “bonus” body left behind on the battlefield.
The remaining two creatures in the four- and five-drop slots may make up a minority by population, but that works to your advantage in a deck that wants playables on-curve from the opening shot. The Goldnight Commander brings the conversation full circle by giving you the yet another superb reward for drawing a late-game Elite Vanguard, doling out a +1/+1 bonus to your entire side. Left unchecked, this can pump your beaters quite quickly and give your deck some valuable finishing power, as weenie creatures tend to become outclassed by midrange creatures before long. Finally, the Zealous Conscripts is the answer to the question, “ever wanted to steal your opponent’s planeswalker and go ultimate with it?” Although your timing has to be right since you only get to “borrow” it for a turn, the Conscripts can snare any permanent on the battlefield when it enters play. This is largely academic as you’ll not be seeing any mythic rares of any stripe in the Intro Packs, but even just stealing the right creature at the right time can turn a game into a blowout. We saw this when we field-tested Angelic Might. Of all the cards Jimi could play from her deck, with my population of massive Angels it was the Conscripts I feared the most.
The Flame that Would Not Die
For Boros aggro decks, the noncreature support tends to be fairly predictable: removal and combat tricks. That said, Fiery Dawn brings along a few curveballs as well. Its removal suite is excellent, given that the format has tended to mute the amount at our disposal. A pair of Incinerates and a Pillar of Flame make up the backbone of the burn suite, giving you timely removal that is best suited to keeping the attack lanes open in the early-to-mid game. You still have the flexibility to deal with something larger if it happens to block one of your Humans, though if your opponent drops a Vorstclaw it’s probably a sign that you gave them too much time to build up in the first place. Still, even in extreme cases like that you can still hope to topdeck your Fireball. You also have a pair of Vigilante Justices, the classic Red “bonus damage” enchantment in the vein of Rumbling Aftershocks or Burning Vengeance. In the non-burn department, you also are given a miser’s copy of Pacifism, so even against the larger threats the deck has some recourse.
Combat tricks, perhaps surprisingly, are somewhat limited here. White brings a Zealous Strike, which is exactly the sort of trick that can also double as ersataz removal. Banners Raised, on the other hand, has a lesser bonus but one that impacts your entire board. A related aside, today’s Making Magic (Mark Rosewater’s column on the mothership) has an interesting discussion on White vs Red for power-pumping and is well worth a read.
Creature augments find their way here as well. Cathars’ Crusade, the deck’s second rare, is the Goldnight Commander writ large. Played early enough, the card can give you the gas to outrace your opponent and stay ahead the entire game. Synergising with that is Commander’s Authority, an aura which gives you a free 1/1 Human each upkeep. The rise in prominence of creature auras in Avacyn Restored is something only really possible when removal is toned down, as it has been for the entire block. This was something we saw in parallel with Rise of the Eldrazi, the set Avacyn Restored shares affinity with. Finally, Angelic Armaments can turn most any of your beaters into an evasive closer, giving a solid power/toughness boost as well as flying.
The deck’s final card is the one Rosewater has declared to be his favourite from the set: Thatcher Revolt. As he explains,
Usually, the cards that are the most popular with players are the cards that are splashy, with big effects on the game or powerful in the effect they create. Designers, on the other hand, are attracted to slightly different things. Designers love elegance. Designers love simplicity. Designers love cards that help tie everything together.
That’s why I love Thatcher Revolt. It’s such an elegant and simple card yet it does so much. Whenever I’ve said this, the reply I keep getting is: “I don’t see it.” Let me explain.
I talked a few weeks ago about how we wanted to create contrasts between the sides of good and evil. The good side had enter-the-battlefield effects. The evil side has death triggers (aka things that trigger when they die). To help promote those mechanical themes, the good guys have numerous cards that reward creatures entering the battlefield and the bad guys have cards that reward things dying. Thatcher Revolt does both.
And so, Thatcher Revolt ties not only Avacyn Restored together, but it also pulls Fiery Dawn along for the ride. From Vigilante Justice to Kruin Striker, the power of having a trio of Humans enter the battlefield all at once is not to be underestimated.
Have the Humans at last presented a force to be reckoned with? Join us in two days’ time when we return with a battlefield report and final analysis of the deck. We’ll see you then!