Duel Decks- Sorin vs Tibalt: Tibalt’s Deck Review (Part 1 of 2)
Given the relatively short time they they have been a feature of the game, the history of the planeswalker is still a relatively modest one when looked at against the backdrop of the span of Magic’s two-decade history. Certainly while this feeling is reinforced by the fact that planeswalkers are themselves the most infrequent card type to see print, their high profile gives them an outsize impression. And that certainly doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been some innovation along the way.
The original Lorwyn planeswalkers all had three abilities, and were costed between three and five mana- a formula which has surived largely intact nearly five years on. It wasn’t until Zendikar block that we saw the most movement in what the planeswalkers were capable of. Sarkhan the Mad shows us what was capable if you never had to worry about building loyalty, while Gideon Jura was able to hop types to become a creature. Along the way was a lesser-known card by the name of Jace, the Mind Sculptor which was granted four abilities instead of the usual three.
Wizards was hardly done there. In Summer of 2010 with Duel Decks: Elspeth vs Tezzeret looming, Wizards updated the game rules to include a new concept called ’emblems.’ Acting as “pseudo-enchantments” that affect the game state, emblems at that time were generate by one card only: Elspeth, Knight-Errant. Others, however, weren’t far behind, beginning with Koth of the Hammer in Scars of Mirrodin.
By the time Spring 2012 rolled around, planaeswalkers were fairly set. There was room for growth and innovation, but often these were differences of degree. A tweak here or there, but by and large conservative as they were when the card type was developed. Perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, before the game saw its first two-mana planeswalker. In Avacyn Restored, we got one.
Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded was noteworthy for his discounted mana cost, and was an interesting balancing act on the part of Wizards R&D. What he was not, however, was universally acclaimed. In part due to his percieved lower playability and the high risk factor associated with his random discard, he hasn’t to date seen a great deal of play. In some ways, though, Tibalt is very much a “build-around-me” card, and in the latest Duel Deck he gets his chance to shine.
The best planeswalker-based Duel Decks are those that invoke the spirit of their namesake leader, and for the sadistic Tibalt that means inflicting a great deal of pain upon your opponent. Of course, defining “pain” in Magic is a bit difficult to define. Translating that to direct damage would be taking the lazy way out, not least because the archetype had already been done (see Duel Decks: Jace vs Chandra and Duel Decks: Venser vs Koth). Instead, what Wizards has crafted is a deck that looks to represent its pain through punishing an opponent’s decisions. Tibalt would be proud.
A Devil’s Hands
Tibalt’s deck can largely be divided into three major themes. The first of these is the aforementioned ‘pain,’ which looks to make the game challenging and difficult for your opponent based on their decisions rather than their permanents. For instance, take a look at our first pair of creatures, the Goblin Arsonist and Ashmouth Hound. On their own, they’re humble creatures a bit on the small side. They’re easily blocked and killed, but doing so is not without consequence. The Hound pings whatever your opponent pits in front of it, meaning that it can’t be traded out with some random 1/1 token but must instead be swapped for something of greater consequence. The Arsonist, meanwhile, gets to send a single point of damage anywhere it likes. Neither of these will typically be game-breaking for your opponent, but they help reinforce a cumulative effect. In other words, Tibalt isn’t going to execute his opponent with a single stroke of the blade when a thousand little cuts are available.
A more robust version of the Arsonist is available in the Gang of Devils. Essentially a triple-strength Arsonist, the Gang unleashes an Arc Lightning whenever your opponent chooses to kill it. Until then, it can happily swing in for 3 points of damage every turn. Then there’s the Lavaborn Muse, who wields a very different kind of torment. Her dilemma is one of cards in hand. Your opponent can play as many cards as they like, but should they choose to play too many the Muse can start whittling away at their life total. This can have a delightfully wicked slowing effect as an opponent conserves the pace of their play so as not to draw the Muse’s attention, which plays right into your hands.
Browbeat lovingly receives the alternate-art treatment and is a classic “punisher” spell, giving an opponent the difficult decision of either taking damage or rewarding you with cards. For them the ‘correct’ decision will usually be to take the damage but there will be times when this simply isn’t feasible. Breaking Point offers a similar arrangement, but rather than give you cards it can act as a reset button, wiping the board of creatures and letting you begin anew. For a more targeted effect, you also have a Blazing Salvo.
Finally, of course, there’s Tibalt himself. Tibalt’s builder is nothing superb, letting you draw a card then discard one at random. On its own that doesn’t add a great deal of value. There will be times that you draw something useful and throw away a redundant land, but then there will also be times you draw a land and throw away something more useful. This has to be seen as a ‘cost of doing business’ even when it results in a feel-bad moment, because much of the deck is configured to take advantage of this. That means that even though you won’t always be happy at the outcome, more often than not you’ll actually be at an advantage- it just won’t always be an obvious one.
It’s Tibalt’s other two abilities that are particularly relevant here (well return to that first one shortly), and again reinforce the deck’s theme of pain. His middle ability has the opposite effect of the Lavaborn Muse, instead punishing your opponent for keeping hold of too many cards in hand. His ultimate, meanwhile, punishes your opponent if they’ve overcommited troops to the field of battle. To sum it up with a turn of phrase that would bring a smile to Tibalt’s devilish visage, your opponent is damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
The second major theme of the deck is a recursive element, designed to mitigate the disadvantage of Tibalt’s random discard- and perhaps even turn it into an advantage of sorts. Although there’s no getting around the disruptive element of its randomness, by giving you cards that you can play from your graveyard you can still come out ahead in card advantage. Several of these cards are ones that take advantage of the unearth mechanic from Shards of Alara. Effectively designed as a flashback for creatures, even if they fall prey to dicard they can still be useful.
The Hellspark Elemental is a variant of the classic Ball Lightning, giving you a high-power, low-toughness trampler that can attack immediately. The Shambling Remains is a sturdy 4/3 that has the drawback of bring unable to block, while the Vithian Stinger is a variant of the Prodigal Pyromancer. Then there’s the Corpse Connoisseur, which has a nifty trick to go alongside its 3/3 body. When the Connoisseur enters play (either hardcast or through unearth), you can fetch another creature and stick it in your graveyard. Finally, Scourge Devil offer a power pump when they enter the battlefield for all of your creatures, and their 3/3 body is perfectly serviceable.
The shenanigans don’t stop there- and why should they? Tibalt has several sacrifice outlets as well, giving you opportunities to get one last use out of any creature that’s outlived its usefulness (such as those you’ve unearthed). Scorched Rusalka asks a high blood price for a single point of damage, but it can help end the game outright if you’ve managed to grievously wound your opponent. The Skirsdag Cultist is cut from similar cloth but in return for a higher up-front investment she throws full-bodied Shocks around. In either case, you’ll be delighted to come across your Reassembling Skeleton, a new card that saw pring in Magic 2011 and was Wizards’ love letter to sac decks. For some spell-based recursion you also have access to a single copy of Torrent of Souls, which can yank a creature right out of your graveyard and give it haste.
The deck’s remaining creatures tend to defy simple classification, but they still have a role to play. The Mad Prophet employs Red’s recent turn towards looting, though unlike Blue versions you have to discard a card first then take your chances on what you end up with. That said, it’s another good way to churn through your library while seeding your graveyard with more playable cards.
On a more aggressive note, there’s also a Hellrider here as well. The Hellrider is another card that gives the deck some range, letting you throw a point of damage at your opponent every time you send a creature their way. Even if the attack is expected to be a one-way trip, like the Rusalka you can finish off an opponent simply by turning all of your creatures sideways. Finally, there’s a Coal Stoker here for a little extra explosiveness, being a one-mana 3/3 under most conditions once you’ve hit your fourth land drop.
The final of the deck’s three themes is perhaps the most straightforward: damage. Packed with burn spells and other ways to savage your opponent’s life total, Tibalt here takes a much less subtle approach. In addition to the burn sources mentioned above, we have a number of other tools at our disposal here- perfect for keeping an opponent’s creature population in check, then eventually burning out the opponent altogether.
For more straightforward options, we have a Flame Slash from Rise of the Eldrazi. This hits creatures only, but in return for the targeting limitation it hits quite hard. A Flame Javelin, meanwhile, costs at least three times as much, but in return that 4 damage can to to creatures as well as players. Geistflame only offers a single point of damage, but its flashback means that you can squeeze extra value out of it once it’s been cast (or discarded).
For a more open-ended approach we have a copy of the appropriately-named Devil’s Play, an X-spell that hits any single target. A Pyroclasm roasts the board for 2 damage, which can help thin out your opponent’s army if you’ve cast it at the right time. Blightning can be just as disruptive but in its own way, sizzling an opponent for 3 and compelling the discard of two cards from their hand.
Although outnumbered on a card-vlume basis, Black has plenty to offer here as well. Bump in the Night is another flashback spell that complements the recursive nature of Tibalt’s deck, and hits for 3 damage. Terminate, meanwhile, is an ultra-efficient way to solve a creature-based threat. While Strangling Soot is only useful against smaller creatures, its flashback makes it extra-useful here.
As we saw with the creatures, there are a few stragglers at the end that round out the deck. Here we find a Sulfuric Vortex, which is a silver-bullet card against any of the Sorin deck’s lifegain options. It also burns both you and your opponent down each round, edging them ever closer to lethal burn range. Recoup gives you a second use of some of your sorcery spells, effectively giving them flashback, while Faithless Looting is taken from the same playbook as the Mad Prophet, carrying the same benefits.
Overall, while some have expressed some disdain for “yet another Red Duel Deck,” this one looks significantly different from Wizards’ other offerings. The attention to detail with regards to embodying Tibalt looks very high, and overall we’re looking forward to seeing how it plays out. First, however, we’ll be taking a look at Sorin’s deck in our next article. See you then!