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December 1, 2012


Duels of the Planeswalkers (2009): Hands of Flame Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

During our recent coverage of Portal Second Age, we traced some of the history of  the game where it attempted to offer aspiring players an easy on-ramp to the world of Magic. Magic was- and continues to be- a game of increasing complexity, as hundreds of new cards are added every year. Wizards was naturally concerned that the game over time could become too imposing, too intimidating to appeal to the mass market, vital for growing the game and replacing those players who leave it. What they felt was needed was some sort of introductory product, and that came in set form in 1998 in the form of Portal.

Portal was merely one of several releases, ranging from  the “game-in-a-box” approach, which put two basic-level intro decks against one another (such as the Rivals Quick Start), and graduating to full sets (Portal Second Age, Starter 1999). Although they filled a need  Wizards had identified, they weren’t fully satisfied with the results- mainly as reflected in the sales figures. Indeed, it wouldn’t be for another decade that they finally found the right approach to begin to really chip away at the ‘barrier to entry,’ and with a touch of irony it would take moving the platform entirely to a digital medium to do so.

In 1998, Wizards unveiled the fruits of a partnership it had entered into with game maker Stainless Games, which brought an “arcade-style” version of the Magic: the Gathering to XBox Live. Entitled Duels of the Planeswalkers, it was a stripped-down version that allowed players to focus on the gameplay itself rather than getting overwhelmed with deck construction. Advanced gameplay such as land tapping and deck customisation was dispensed with, and instead players were given preconstructed decks to use against AI opponents as well as one another. In his State of Design 2012 article, Mark Rosewater identified six different reasons the franchise had become so successful. These included low financial commitment, simple gameplay and interface, and the ability to play “in isolation,” away from the possible discomfort associated with being a novice amongst a crowd of experts (real or imagined).

By the same token, it also gave Wizards something in return, which was a superb venue to showcase Wizards’ move towards a persistent intellectual property: the planeswalker. As chronicled in our review of Onslaught’s Bait & Switch, the planeswalker card type at this point was brand new, and represented something of a gamble on Wizards’ part. Originally designed for Future Sight, but pulled from the file to give time for further development, they made their debut in Lorwyn. Designed in part to be an ensemble cast of characters that would give some creative continuity from set to set, as well as be recognisable ambassadors for the band, the planeswalkers were the perfect concept to mould an entry-level product around.

Duels of the Planeswalkers launched with eight different stock decks, with others to follow in expansion packs. To Wizards’ delight it was a tremendous success, and the buzz and interest surrounding the game was such that the very next year they adapted it for the Sony and personal computing platforms. Two years later, they released a sequel, and another the year following, at each step enhancing and refining the game experience. At last, Wizards had found what they had long sought- an entry-level product that had tremendous casual appeal, and brought new faces and new interest to the game while still offering something for the veteran player.

Prodigal Pyromancer

In June of 2010, Wizards moved to capitalise on this success by offering a “bridge” product to help transition the new crop of players into the paper market with a series of five preconstructed decks, each based upon one of the decks within the game. Although these were rather less successful overall, they at least had the distinction of being the first set of preconstructed decks reviewed by a brand-new website dedicated to preconstructed Magic. Now, we’re returning to the Duels of the Planeswalkers platform, and giving a look to the actual decks within the game- reviewed, of course, in paper format. As a brief aside, for the purposes of our reviews we’ll be looking at the 60-card stock list, not the unlockables or other aspects of the digital play experience. We’ve reconstituted each of the decks in paper form, and will be using those as the basis for our reviews and playtesting.

We begin today with Hands of Flame, the deck based around one of the original five ‘walkers, Chandra Nalaar. Chandra’s origin story bears something of a passing resemblance to a novel published in 1980, which went on to become a memorable film four years later (starring a very young Drew Barrymore). Stephen King’s Firestarter tells the tale of a young girl with pyrokinetic powers, whose misfit abilities draw the attention of a government agency looking to harness them. Although framed in a fantasy setting, Chandra’s situation has some parallel themes, mainly in the fact that she is a pyromancer in a society where the magic of fire is reviled and prohibited. A misfit herself, her parents sought to force her into an arranged marriage to try and normalise her life. Instead, she rebelled, setting off a chain of events that saw her family burned to death and her planeswalker spark ignite.

To date, Chandra has been incarnated on three different cards, but historically has struggled to find a place in competitive constructed decks. The original, Chandra Nalaar, builds up with a series of pings on an opponent, can burn a single target, or unleash a massive hellstorm on an opponent and all of their creatures. Simple and straightforward if perhaps a touch expensive, her next iteration- Chandra Ablaze– was widely perceived as a disappointment- largely because she cost six mana when the ‘sweet spot’ for playable planeswalkers tends to be three or four.She does get points for variety, however, with an entirely new slate of abilities that are characteristically Red but only one of which centers around burn damage. Magic 2012 brought about the most recent version, Chandra, the Firebrand. Showing a significant reduction in mana cost, the latest Chandra offers advanced pinging that can hit creatures as well as players, spell copying, and another ultimate firestorm ability.

Although one of the game’s lesser planeswalkers, she’s had no shortage of feature on a number of cards and products. The very first Duel Decks release that centered on planeswalker conflict pitted her against Jace, a recreation of their battle as depicted in the novel The Purifying Fire. She’s also been featured on the webcomic series on the mothership. For Duels of the Planeswalkers, her deck combined a core burn package within a solidly early-to-midrange creature shell.

Burns in Heart

Like many Red decks, Chandra’s focuses on getting an early jump on things with quick, cheap creatures. The first of these is the Raging Goblin. A 1/1 with haste, what you see is what you get with him, but if you’re on the play he’s often able to zip right across the red zone and get in for a nick of damage before your opponent has even drawn their first card. You get the full playset here, maximising your chances of finding one in your opening grip. The deck’s two-drop is cut from similar cloth. The much-maligned Goblin Piker wins few beauty contests, but it is 2 power for two mana, and that’s not always an efficiency you’ll find in Red.

Things begin to peak one rung higher on the mana curve, with as many three-drops as the two earlier drop slots combined. There’s a full playset of Goblin Sky Raiders, which are also rather underwhelming options, though Red is often starved for choice when it comes to the air. On the upside, we also find a rare card here in form of a Goblin King, the mere presence of which inspires all of your other Goblins to greater feats of strength and leads them to… um… become better at finding sneaky paths through the mountains? We’ll take it, if only for the power/toughness boost alone. You also have one last Goblin here, the Flamewave Invoker. Originally from Legions, the Invoker gives you a repeatable Lava Axe effect, though one with a pricetag you’ll seldom be able to afford. Still, if the game stalls out and you find yourself laying down your eighth mana, that should be more than sufficient to bring things to their swift conclusion.

In addition, a precon Red deck wouldn’t be a precon Red deck without its pingers, and here you get the Prodigal Pyromancer. It may seem hard to imagine now, but once upon a time Blue had the ability to deal damage, albeit in a roundabout fashion. Psionic Blast was present in Alpha, The Dark gave us Mind Bomb (which almost seems Red/Black now, combining damage and discard), and the primary pinger in the game was the Prodigal Sorcerer. Those days are long gone, with the colour pie having long since gelled around pinging being a primarily Red effect.


Moving up to the four-drops, we find another raft of options here as well. A playset of Lightning Elementals– originally from Tempest- deliver another characteristically Red effect- big damage out of nowhere. Although this Elemental lacks trample, it does have the ability to stick around more than a turn, which is more that can be said for stalwarts of the type like Ball Lightning. If you’re looking for something a little more balanced, however, you’ll be pleased to note the presence of a playset of Hill Giants. The poster-child for Red creature inefficiency, the Giant is neither sexy nor glamourous, but sometimes a little bulk in the red zone is exactly what you need.

And then, sometimes you need just a little bit more bulk, and at the top of the curve we find a pair of Earth Elementals. 4/5’s for five mana, they have a solid power and admirable toughness. Though like many sloggingly heavy creatures that have no evasion they can be easily stalled, there’s something to be said for being able to threaten 20% of your opponent’s life total each turn. 

Spontaneous Combustion

As you’d hope and expect, the burn package here is fairly robust. Red burn serves two critical roles in the deck. First, it lets you keep the lanes clear so your more efficient damage oprions (creatures) can get in as many strikes as possible. Then, should your opponent successfily stall out the creature game, you can turn them directly to your opponent and finish them off across the table.

The burn comes in three sizes here, tall (Shock), grande (Incinerate), and venti (Lava Axe), though the latter is confined to players only, and can’t target a creature. Between the three, you have a total of eight sources of damage, which should let you draw it with laudable consistency. There’s also a pair of Enrages here. Like the Progial Pyromancer, Engrage reflects another colour shift, this time from Black to Red. Originally known as Howl from Beyond, the spell allows you to convert your mana into direct damage at a 1:1 ratio if you manage to slip a creature past your opponent’s defenses. Alternately, it can be used as an ersatz kill spell to help one of yours take down something worse of theirs, but this should really only be done when absolutely necessary, as it’s generally inefficient.

Overall, Hands of Flame presents us with a rather standard-issue, generic Red deck, which was just the thing for the Duels of the Planeswalkers platform. It shows off the creatures and abilities the colour is known for, and if it appears perhaps just a little plain and homely to our veteran’s eye, there’s still enough here to entertain.

Join us again in two days, when we return from playtesting the deck to issue our final verdict!

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dec 1 2012

    Reviewing the Duels of the Planeswalkers decks is a decent plan, but why start with the oldest one? It’s been replaced twice over now, and it’s not really relevant anymore. And a new one comes out every year, so you’d be, like, eternally behind. There’s like a zillion decks in each game, too.

    • Dec 1 2012

      Great question! The short answer is, it’s consistent with how we review sets now- oldest (in a block) first, then build from there.

      Long answer: Back when we used to jump around with our reviews, I soon realised that I was missing something by not doing sets in block order. Reviewing, say, Fifth Dawn before I’d done Mirrodin meant that I would be missing the story of that block’s development. Without starting at the beginning, the advancement and evolution of themes would go unnoted. Since each review is done once, I try and make as complete a ‘historical record’ as I can.

      You’re right, of course. There have been a number of releases with more to come, and these decks are no longer in circulation, but then that goes for a good number of the decks we review. Who’s sitting around cracking into Onslaught precons on a Friday night? But… by starting here, I will be able to see the decks as they unfold across sets.

      Remember, this was an experimental release, just like all of the others- Portal, Starter, etc. Wizards had no way to know it would be the success it was. With that in mind, how did they craft these early decks, balancing an appeal to the outsider while offering entertainment to the veteran? When the success of the franchise began to be apparent, what else did they do? What ‘risks’ did they take with certain decks? With so many decks being mono-coloured, how did they differentiate from one ‘generation’ to the next? What new cards came into the pool that they brought in to update an old archetype?

      These questions are the ones I’ll be looking at as I trace the evolution of the franchise, and they’re all ones I’d miss out on by just jumping in at the deep end. Besides, it’s our goal before this thing is through to review every precon deck we can find. Ever open a Core Set Player’s Guide and see those wee deck lists tucked in for each planeswalker? Someday those will be here, too. : D

  2. DomaDragoon
    Dec 2 2012

    Looking forwards to this go-round with the DotP decks. I know you’re going with the initial 60, but will you be including the expansion pack decks (Mind of Void, Eons of Evil, etc.) as well?

    Here’s hoping they turn out more positively than the paper ones (which I don’t think were too bad, Thoughts of Wind excepted of course).

  3. Dec 3 2012

    How are you going to handle the unlockable cards for each deck? Unlocking cards and customizing the decks in DOTP is still one of the most important things to do in the game.

    It’s quite different from the random boosters in intro packs since the unlocks come in set lists, more like sideboards, and you could theoretically change up the entire deck with them (Well, maybe only in DOTP 2013 where you can have 40 unlockable cards for most decks)

    • Dec 3 2012

      The unlockables aren’t really in consideration, since they’re not part of the core deck. What I’m after is that core, the thematic heart of each deck, outwith whatever winnable bonuses you get for playing it successfully. What is each deck trying to tell us?

  4. stric9
    Dec 16 2012

    As you said, typical burn. Now on to the playtest!


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