Duels of the Planeswalkers (2009): Wings of Light Review (Part 1 of 2)
If you went to your local gaming store in Autumn of 2008 and picked up a booster of Shards of Alara, you might have been delightfully surprised to open it up and find a copy of Elspeth, Knight-Errant staring back at you in the rare slot. In your moment of joy at your good fortune, you might well have been forgiven for momentarily overlooking the string of evolution of Magic that brought you to that moment.
Assuming you were amongst those to begin playing at the start of the game in 1993, you would have purchased your booster pack of Magic cards and opened it up to find a fairly predictable model. Eleven of the cards were common, three of them were uncommon, and one of them would be rare. Sure, in those early, heady days there were a few anomalies, such as basic Islands being printed in the rare slot, but like as not you wouldn’t necessarily notice. Not only did these first cards not possess a coloured set symbol to denote their rarity (this would appear in 199x’s Exodus), but there was no such symbol on them at all.
This was purely by design. Richard Garfield, the creator of the game, sought to preserve an air of mystery about what might be in the available card pool. The idea was you might show up at a friend’s house to play, and be blown away by some new card you’d never even heard of before. Although subsequent small expansion sets like Arabian Nights and Antiquities would drop to an eight-card model with a slightly different rarity scheme, the overall principle of distinct cards being apportioned into a stratified rarity system would more or less persist in its original form for another fifteen years.
By contrast, if you were a baseball card collector at the same time, your pack of Topps could offer a great deal more variety. You had the base set, of course, which consisted of 825 cards, broken down into the usual fashion of players, managers, all-stars, and checklists. From there you had a parallel set which was highlighted with gold foil, a concept Wizards wouldn’t embrace for nearly five more years with Urza’s Legacy. If that wasn’t enough, there was an exclusive 44-card mini-set called “Black Gold,” and these were a lottery find. You might get lucky and find a card in your pack, or luckier still and find a coupon redeemable for part of the set or even the set in its entirety. Or perhaps fortune really smiled upon you, and you managed to stockpile a few rookie cards of a young player for New York named Derek Jeter.
Now if you happened to be a baseball card collector with a bit of extra disposable income, you might plump for the Topps Finest series of cards instead. This was a smaller, premium set of just under two-hundred cards and is considered one of the hobby’s groundbreaking sets. Its inclusion of a very rare (estimated two per box) parallel refractor set help define the hobby going forward, which would soon proliferate with ever-rarer and more exclusive chase cards. Snippets of game-worn jerseys, slivers of baseball bats, and other ultra-rare treats brought baseball-card fanatics ripping open packs, and the market effect did not go unnoticed.
Although Magic was the first, it was certainly not the last collectible card game as others saw the lightning in a bottle Wizards had captured and wanted a share of the market. Some of these took a page from the sports cards’ playbook, and tinkered with the rarity schemes of their games to tantalise consumers with higher-rarity chase cards, hoping that would lead to greater sales at the register. They were right.
In discussing the arrival of mythic rarity to Magic in June of 2008, Mark Rosewater had this to say.
When Magic first began, it had the luxury of defining itself because it was the first of its kind. That is not the world we live in today. TCGs are now an established game genre. We came to realize that we don’t have the luxury of defining Magic solely against itself. The trading card game genre has created some standards that evolved from decisions made after Magic’s creation, rarity being one of the best examples. The idea of a TCG with only three rarities is antiquated. Magic is the only major trading card game currently printed with only three rarities. If we want to stay competitive in attracting new players we have to keep up with the industry standards.
This advance capped a number of changes to the way Magic would be produced going forward, beginning with Shards of Alara. Although there would be another rarity class, the overall size of the sets in terms of number of cards would be reduced. Theme Decks would be going the way of the dodo, repurposed and repositioned as Intro Packs (and so entering a two-year preconstructed Dark Age before Wizards better perfected striking the right balance between simplicity and intricacy). A number of other, smaller changes were unveiled as well, such as with the book publishing schedule and Fat packs composition.
Moreso than any other card, planeswalkers were virtually made for mythic rarity. Although the first cycle of five from Lorwyn were ‘only’ rare, Wizards had made it clear that the card type was going to be seldom printed, the focus of a great deal of effort and creativity to make sure that each ‘walker would stand out. Explained Rosewater, “we want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells.” Indeed, the fact that no new planeswalkers were printed in the successive three sets following Lorwyn gives testimony to the intentions of Wizards to keep them as a rare preserve.
In Lorwyn, Wizards had issued a cycle of five planeswalkers, one for each colour. This time around, although there was a similar cycle of five, it was centered around shards (three-colour combinations consisting of a primary colour and its two allies) and was spread over two sets (the fifth planeswalker, representing Grixis, would not be unveiled until Conflux). One of the four was a familiar face in Ajani Vengeant, while the other three were entirely new. The volcanic land of Jund brought us Sarkhan Vol, while Tezzeret the Seeker heralded from the artifact-rich world of Esper. The final walker, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, had taken up residence on Bant, a shard of honour, order, and ritual combat.
Thus far in our coverage of Duels of the Planeswalkers, we’ve covered the four decks inspired by the Lorwyn planeswalkers (Ajani’s Claws of Vengeance is based on his second iteration, Ajani Vengeant). Today we have our first look at a deck inspired by one of these newer, second-generation ‘walkers, Wings of Light.
Galvanize the Soul
Wings of Light boasts one of the set’s more aggressive mana curves, frontloaded with a stream of cheap creatures preluding a playset of closers. Looks can be deceiving, however, as this deck is anything but aggressive. Instead, the Angels and their minions have a larger plan at work, one that doesn’t start blossoming until at least the midgame.
The one-drop suite is rife with the usual aerial presence one expects from a White deck, packing in a full playset of Suntail Hawks. Like all of the deck’s creatures, when considering these it is important to bear in mind what Wings of Light is looking to do, which is grow its own army. With a trio of Glorious Anthems as well as some Holy Strengths in the sixty, it’s not intended that these Hawks will stay 1/1’s for long. Of course, this takes some time to develop, so to help move things along there is a pair of Goldenglow Moths. As printed, the Moths are unlikely to last more than one block, but again there’s more at work here beneath the surface. The trio of Holy Days can help let your Moth stay afloat for more than one engagement, and of course the aforementioned creature-pumping effects also can work wonders here.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find a pair of Angelic Walls, most recently reprinted in Avacyn Restored. With 4 toughness (unbuffed) and flying, the Walls have more than enough to keep most cheap attackers at bay while you dig for your pumping options. A playset of Youthful Knights and their first strike can also help make attacking you a dicey proposition early on, and can easily be turned on the offense when the time is right.
Like many of the game’s lesser strategies, lifegain typically works poorly unless it is properly supported. We noted with dismay, for example, the pair of Natural Springs included in Teeth of the Predator. With only two in the deck they cannot be relied upon, so trading life for time isn’t always a steady proposition. Wings of Light, on the other hand, is an example of how lifegain works best. With a full playset of Venerable Monks, you not only get a sturdy 2/2 body as early as turn 3, but you also can comfortably take some early hits without worry, since the deck’s many healing options can keep you out of burn range even when on the back-foot. Lifegain is usually at its best when married to some other, desirable option such as a creature.
This continues right on through to the top of the deck’s curve. Here we find a full playset of Angels of Mercy. The 3/3 flying body is relevant, and the 3 life is never unwelcome. The deck’s laudable consistency should not go unmentioned here either. Filled with four-ofs and three-ofs, you can pilot Wings of Light with confidence knowing you’re very likely to see the cards you need each game.
Battle Song of an Angel
Wings of Light uses its noncreature support suite to bolster its overall core strategy, and it does so with the same admirable consistency. A trio of Glorious Anthems lead us off. A welcome sight, these give all of your creatures a stackable +1/+1 bonus, and suddenly your Moths can survive a blocking assignment, your Walls get bigger and the first strike of your Knights has greater reach. One of White’s mainstay effects since Crusade first rolled off the printers, it is a very welcome addition to the deck.
For more targeted- if temporary- buffing, a playset of Angelic Blessings can pump one of your creatures up and give them evasion (if they don’t already have it). Although a sorcery, it’s still a welcome way to push through extra damage if the ground game has become congested. Less temporary are the pair of Holy Strengths, which give a flat +1/+2 bonus. There’s always a risk associated with playing creature auras, since you’re just a Doom Blade away from losing two card to their one. Over time Wizards has sought to bake in extra value to compensate for the risk (typically in the form of card advantage, either virtual or real). Alas, Holy Strength is another card from the dawn of the game, and so it likely delivers too little for the money in the modern age. Still, it can do wonders to thwart your opponent’s attack if stuck, for instance, on the Goldenglow Moth, and so has a role to play here.
FOr auras that work in the other direction, the deck offers you a full playset of Pacifisms for removal. That’s not a lot, so you’ll need to make them count. Otherwise, don’t expect this deck to do much talking outside of the combat zone. The final option here is the trio of Holy Days, which are essentially a White Fog. First printed in Legends (with much more convoluted wording), these are situational but have some inherent synergy with the deck. Should you be on the receiving end of a particularly brutal attack, you can simply toss one of these off to blunt it after declaring blockers. If your Moth is one of them, you’ll still get rewarded with a nice chunk of life.
Overall it’s fairly exciting to see a slightly unorthodox strategy carried out with such consistency, and we’re going to enjoy putting the deck to the test. See you in two days, when we return to deliver a verdict.