Duels of the Planeswalkers (2012): Unquenchable Fire Review (Part 1 of 2)
Just as last year was the “Year of Firsts,” we’ve selected a theme to weave throughout our preconstructed coverage this year as well. This time around, we’ve made the leap to digital, as this is the year of “Duels of the Planeswalkers.” Thus far we’ve looked at the decks of the entire original 2009 release, from the base set to all three expansions. Today we pick up where we left off, a tale of a two-year pause.
The original Duels of the Planeswalkers wasn’t initially intended to be serialised in the same fashion of the core sets from Magic 2010 on. To be certain there were contingencies in place for its success, as its highly unlikely we would have seen three expansions released for the first series had the product tanked and nobody proved interested. It Wizards was worried, they wouldn’t be for long- Duels of the Planeswalkers proved to be a very popular point of entry for many- and an inviting return for many who had left the game. One of the deciding factors in the popularity of the game- its social aspect- seemed to prove quite valuable when absent as well, giving players plenty of time to practice and learn the game at their own speed and convenience.
The gap in release time between the original 2009 release and Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 is a telling one, revealing the understandable caution Wizards had at doubling down on a series which- at the time- was yet untested. Over the next few years, Duels of the Planeswalkers would begin to gravitate towards alignment with the annual core set, including “previews weeks” and Duels/core set pooled spoilers. As we’ll see, even as far back as Duels 2012 there was a glaring hint of things to come.
We begin our look at Duels 2012 today with a familiar face, Chandra Nalaar. Chandra, who has been made the iconic figurehead of the Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014, at this time was a second-tier player, a planeswalker who had never really held a starring role in the Magic narrative as some of the other ‘walkers had. Sure she had her own book (The Purifying Fire) and was an actor in the set-up to Rise of the Eldrazi, but on the heels of a disappointing incarnation in Zendikar (the six-mana Chandra Ablaze), she had yet to- forgive me- really catch fire. Nevertheless, her inclusion in the base set of Duels 2012 was almost certainly never in doubt, and she’s returned with another mono-Red creation.
In the first release, Chandra was given the Hands of Flame deck. A mid-range deck that distributed its creatures fairly evenly along the mana curve, it was creature-heavy with some burn to back it up. Burn spells took center stage for Chandra’s next deck, Heat of Battle, which was included in Expansion Pack 2. Again the deck was largely stacked for the midgame, with a large spike in three-drops without a single one-drop creature.
Unquenchable Fire takes a slightly different tack. Although it retains the massive burn suite that so stood Heat of Battle in good stead, it grafts that onto a slightly more aggressive creature package. Indeed, the deck packs a surprising six one-drops, which is more than both of her previous decks had combined.
To be fair, that’s not quite as aggressive as it seems, as two of them are Cinder Walls. 3/3’s with defender that die once they block, these can essentially be considered less as creatures and more as ersatz removal spells. The other options here, though, are considerably more aggressive. The Flamekin Brawler is a 0/2 with Firebreathing, meaning that the only limit to its power is how many Mountains you’ve managed to put into play. The Goblin Arsonist is a bit more feeble, but it gets a free ping whenever it dies. This means it can trade out on defense with an x/2, while being a creature your opponent might hesitate to block if they have a valued utility creature on the board.
The two-drops are devoted to a trio of Kiln Fiends, natural inclusions in a deck so filled with spells as this one. We did see these appear briefly in the 2009 version of Duels, as Niv-Mizzet’s Root of the Firemind from Expansion Pack 3 offered a full playset. They’re very solid here, and can easily ambush an opponent with a power surge simply by casting an instant at the right time.
Like Heat of Battle, you get a full playset of Fiery Hellhounds here- this deck loves its Firebreathing! Like the Brawlers, the Hellhounds can channel your mana into their power, but unlike the Brawlers you don’t have to devote mana to them to get them to do damage. Cards like this are very useful once the game starts to go longer, as they give you an outlet to constructively dump your mana into turn after turn. Also amongst the three-drops is a Prodigal Pyromancer. This pinger makes its return from Hands of Flame as it was left out of Chandra’s second deck build. It’s surprisingly useful both as creature combat support as well as direct damage to an opponent, and is a card you’ll usually be happy to draw.
Heat of Battle was also noteworthy in that it featured creatures that supplied direct damage such as the Torch Slinger and Inferno Elemental, and Unquenchable Fire draws water from the same well with the lone four-drop, Flametongue Kavu. This is a classic, highly-rated value card which frequently finds its way into premium reprints such as Commander, Planechase, and Duel Decks: Jace vs Chandra. It offers a superb deal, both in efficient damage output as well as leaving behind a relevant 4/2 body.
The pair of Fire Elementals in Heat of Battle make an encore appearance here as well. These aren’t especially flashy, being a vanilla creature, but their size makes them a force to be reckoned with. 4 toughness is sturdy, and the 5 power will make your opponent take notice. Slightly smaller is the Fire Servant, a new card introduced in Magic 2011. The Servant costs the same as the Fire Elemental, but loses a point off its stats. By way of compensation, however, it gives a very attractive static effect of doubling the damage output of your sorceries and instants.
Emotion and Power
And there are many! Although Chandra’s first two decks were predominantly burn-focused, this time every noncreature spell in the deck is burn. It’s an unbelievable array of spells that puts even the recently-heralded Firebomber to shame in terms of sheer quantity. That said, there’s a bit more going on here beneath the surface than meets the eye.
The burn package is a bit more nuanced than simply cramming a bunch of Lightning Bolts and Fireballs into a deck and calling it good, and therein lies the deck’s balance. For one thing, many of the cards have targeting restrictions which make them less versatile. Rise of the Eldrazi’s Flame Slash is a great example, in that it has high damage output, but a very narrow utility. Sizzle and Lava Axe, on the other hand, only target your opponent.
Want your bread-and-butter 3-damage burn spell? You get a full playset of Volcanic Hammers, but they cost two mana and are at sorcery speed. Heaven forbid you want to draw a card with that- your Ember Shots cost a grotesque seven mana, but at least they’re instants. And your X-spell? Blaze, one of the weakest available (Fireball can hit multiple targets, Blaze is a one-shot deal).
Chandra’s Outrage at least has the decency to nail both your opponent and one of their creatures a the same time, making it one of the best spells in your arsenal. And Pyroclasm is that rare jewel in the preconstructed realm, a sweeper card. Drawn late it tends to lose a little sting, but if you manage to find it early enough you can often bait your opponent into overcomitting, and blow them out.
This is a trope we often see with precons, where heavy removal comes with a lot of strings attached. We frequently make note of New Phyrexia’s Feast of Flesh as the poster-deck for this design, with a lot of wierd and wonky removal cards. Unquenchable Fire is similar, though a bit more nuanced since it does the same thing with burn spells rather than with kill spells. This is done for balance, of course, because a deck with four Lightning Bolts, four Incinerates, and four Shocks would be very difficult to overcome in this environment.
This nevertheless compares somewhat favourably to that which has come before. Although Hands of Flame’s burn suite was much more straightforward (Shocks, Incinerates, and Lava Axes), balance was attained by limiting the quantity. Heat of Battle had 50% more burn packed into it, but that’s where we start to see the “clunkier” cards appear, like Magma Rift and Volcanic Hammer.
It makes for good design, though, as strengths must be counterbalanced by vulnerabilities or challenges to attain a level balance across a large number of decks- and indeed, it’s a principle that the game rests upon with the colour pie. We’ll be looking forward to playing it to see how it works in the field, and will return in two days with a verdict!