Portal Second Age: Goblin Fire Review (Part 1 of 2)
It is often true that the harder a thing is to accomplish in life, the more indelibly etched into your memory that endeavour will be. Approaching my fourth decade of life on this earth, my ‘memory filing cabinet’ is too stuffed full to make a full accounting of the smaller things, but certainly some of life’s greater challenges stand out. Having two hours to clean and sanitise the house after an all-night illicit party before Mom gets home, for instance.
Or being sent to West Point for a week-long elite youth football camp, playing a sport I’d only just started playing on a lark and didn’t much love but being the beneficiary of a bird colonel uncle’s errant string-pull who thought the experience might ‘shape up’ his sister’s pudgy son. More recently, dropping almost fifty pounds through hard work and exercise, culminating in running a 5K a few weeks ago- at a less than ten-minute-mile pace.
Nestled within the bed of memories woven from life’s various challenges is an evening nearly two decades ago when one of my best mates, a core part of our Dungeons & Dragons high school group came back from college with a brand new game that we simply had to play. It wasn’t like any game we’d played before, though its flavour was familiar and easy to grasp. But instead of miniatures pushed around graph paper, this was a battlefield of the mind. You played your “land cards,” and then used them to summon monsters to attack with, hurl Lightning Bolts and Fireballs across the table, and deploy artifacts to help you along the way. Pat and I sat on the living room floor all evening long as he taught me this new game, Magic: the Gathering.
What occurred that evening is something that has been on Wizards’ mind for virtually the game’s entire life, and it is conceptually distilled into only three words: barrier to entry. When Pat took an entire evening to show me how to play Magic, from introducing core concepts to advancing to optimal lines of play, he didn’t have as much to content with as a person in the same position today. Our learning was back at the dawn of the game, with a comparatively paltry card pool. Today’s aspiring planeswalker faces a dazzling- and frankly intimidating- array of possibilities. With over sixty different sets, scores of mechanical keywords, and thousands upon thousands of cards printed to date, the outsider looking in can well be forgiven thinking that Magic is a game of staggering complexity. In many ways, they’re not wrong.
Amongst Magic’s earliest attempts to address the steepening learning curve was a set released in 1997 called Portal. Portal was a very different set of Magic, one aimed squarely at the beginning rather than the advanced player. For one thing, card types that were felt to be overly-complicated for the novice were omitted entirely, resulting in a set comprised entirely of creatures and sorceries (though a small number of sorceries mimicked instants). The card templating was similarly modified, with small sword and shield icons added next to a creature’s power and toughness to help them keep track of which number was which. A thick black line separated the rules and any flavour text. The library was called ‘the deck,’ while the graveyard was ‘the discard pile,’ and blocking was rechristened ‘intercepting.’ All these were only some of the changes made to the set to help better position it as an introductory-level product for the new and aspiring player.
Portal’s success was fairly modest, but Wizards was pleased enough with the overall concept that they released a follow-up set a year later: Portal Second Age. There were a number of small tweaks and changes made to this second effort as we’ll see in the review for the next deck. For the now, as we crack open a copy of Goblin Fire the most important change was this one: preconstructed decks!
Ya Gotta Bash Hard
It likely surprises no-one that Goblin Fire is firmly pattered after the classic mono-Red mould of cheap, aggressive creatures backed up by burn. Indeed, with the most aggressive mana curve in the set and no creature costing more than three mana, you’re quite organically guided to that very same strategy one way or another. A new player might not make the best choices with attacking or blocking, or might point their burn in the wrong direction, but overall thsi deck would give them a sense of what aggression in Magic would feel like.
The deck leads with a healthy amount of one-drops, almost two full playsets’ worth if you account for the fact that these are 40-card decks rather than 60. The most rudimentary of these is the Raging Goblin, a 1/1 with haste. First printed in Portal, the Raging Goblin has gone on to be reprinted in an impressive number of releases, as recent as Magic 2010. Here, it’s a cheap attacker, but notable for its haste. As we’ll see, some of the other precons in Portal Second Age have one-drop 1/1’s that are vanilla, making this an uncommon occurrence of Red actually having a more efficient creature. You also get a pair of Goblin Firestarters, another 1/1 which can be sacrificed before your attack to ping another creature or player. The timing restriction takes away a considerable amount of the creature’s utility for ordinary Magic, but for the purposes of Portal it works just fine.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find another six cards here, two each of three different Goblins. The Goblin Glider is a flying option in Red, albeit one with a blocking restriction that takes it out of the defensive equation altogether. Your pair of Goblin Raiders face the same concern, though you might just as easily recast the term “blocking restriction” as “impetus to attack.” Goblin Fire wants you to swarm across the board at your opponent, even if the cost is dire. The other decks with their bigger creatures will almost certainly win any wait-and-buildup game, so the only hope the Goblins have is to rush early and close out with direct damage. In that light, the drawback is really a teaching tool. The Raider is also noteworthy for what the Goblin is holding in his hands, which has remained a quite controversial aspect of the set we’ll be touching on in a later review.
That aside, if someone really, really wants a humble, two-drop Goblin that ‘does it all,’ well, the Goblin Piker is your man… er, Goblin.
Moving to the final rung of the ladder, we find a few more intriguing options here. There’s some added vanilla brawn in a pair of Goblin Cavaliers, but it’s the other two creatures that give some spice to the relatively bland lineup we’ve covered thus far. First, there’s a pair of Goblin Matrons, a new card in the set that would see almost immediate reprinting (as a common) in Urza’s Saga. The Matron introduces a new player to the concept of card advantage, since she lets you retrieve another Goblin from the deck when she’s cast. The Matron would fade to obscurity for a number of years, only to resurface later in both Seventh Edition and Duel Decks: Elves vs Goblins.
Finally, we find one of the deck’s three rare cards in the Goblin General. The Goblin General, quite flavourfully, is not long for the world, being almost certainly born to die. For although he gives your other Goblins an inspirational burst of power when he attacks, he gets no such boost for himself and, as a 1/1, will die to nearly anything. Still, it’s a good way to squeeze every last bit of value out of your Goblins while you still have the opportunity to gain ground with them, a sort of with a rush and a push and the land is ours moment. Honour your General by making the most of it.
The Heat of Battle
If the first half of Goblin Fire was all about the Goblins, the noncreature support suite is all about the fire! Fully seven of the deck’s nine noncreature spells are direct damage, helping you get through for impact with your attackers before finally finishing off a wounded opponent.
We begin with Volcanic Hammer, the deck’s bread-and-butter burn spell. Two mana for 3 damage at sorcery speed, the Hammer isn’t winning any beauty contests in a world where Lightning Bolt exists, but in this context again it’s perfectly serviceable. For a more open-ended burn offering, you also get a pair of Blazes. While there’s a bit of negative synergy between these cards and one of your remaining rares, they still make superb inclusions in the deck due to their versatility. Finally, there’s a pair of Goblin War Strikes, which blast your opponent directly for only one mana for damage equal to the number of Goblins you’ve managed to play. Force of habit tends to have players hold on to burn until the last possible moment, but given the high mortality rate for your deck’s creatures, this is one you may want to play a little earlier.
The final two cards are rare, and provide very different avenues for the deck to follow. The first is Relentless Assault, a reprint from Visions. This lets you get a second attack phase in, and can provide a huge swing to the game. Although individually your attacks don’t do a lot of damage, having the horde rumble across the table twice in a turn can be backbreaking to the unprepared opponent- especially if you’ve softened up their defenses first with a bit of burn.
The final card is another one that made it into Urza’s Saga, Wildfire. This is one of those massive spells that has a huge but symmetrical effect, like Wrath of God or Armageddon. The trick to effectively employing such cards, however, is to break the symmetry. In this case, it’s a compound effect. The 4 damage should virtually wipte the board, while the land destruction means it will be hard to rebuild. Of course, if you’re playing a deck packed with cheap, swarming creatures, you don’t need much land in the first place. Although it certainly can limit the effectiveness of cards like Blaze, this is a virtual reset button on a game that gives you a second shot at overwhelming your opponent for victory. Not to mention the fact that while you’re saving up to cast it, you’re sculpting your hand accordingly, perhaps holding creatures back while letting your opponent overcommit. It’s another bomb of a card, and one that will spice up many the Goblin game.
Check back in two days when we return with a post-match assessment of how the Goblins fared, as well as a final score overall. See you then!