I’ve always been a fan of casual kitchen-table style Magic and appreciate what Wizards has aimed to do with the Duel Deck series. On the one hand the decks give newer players the opportunity to try out a smorgasbord of cards from across the game’s history; on the other hand the Duel Deck series offers hardcore players access to reprints of decent cards, often with new art. My interests tend to fall in between these categories – I love battling with basic thematic decks for funsies, and I love having solid reprints for my EDH decks.
I have played with nearly every pair of Duel Decks since their inception with Elves vs Goblins (which I viewed as a remake of the great battles my best friend and I waged during Onslaught block when we first learned to play the game), and my generally impression of them has been mixed. In every set there is one really solid deck with complex mechanics and card interaction that supported extended playability. But usually the other deck seemed like a hastily thrown-together pile of cards that barely matched a them. For example, the Coalition deck in Phyrexia vs. the Coalition was a 5-color domain deck that brought a few Invasion Elder Dragons to the party, while the Phyrexia deck was a basic stack of black Urza’s block reprints. In the Knight vs. Dragons set, a powerhouse of green and white Knights annihilated the mono-red Dragon deck, usually just by playing Silver Knight and/or Loxodon Warhammer. The Dragons were mostly barely-limited-playable fire-breathing dragons like Dragon Whelp, and had not-really-combo cards like Voracious Dragon with hardly any ways to make goblins to eat.
I’m not really complaining about getting a sweet new-art foil Bogardan Hellkite or Phyrexian Negator from those decks to spiffy up my EDH decks, but they just didn’t seem evenly-matched for a product that was designed to be battled. Then again, if each set has a complex deck and a simple deck, it allows for everyone to be able to pick up a deck and get it on regardless of skill level.
But then comes Speed vs Cunning, the newest set in the Duel Deck series. Really I picked this up today at my local game store because I wanted to build a red-black-white deck with the new Khans of Tarkir clan leader Zurgo Helmsmasher, and I was enticed by the included copies of the new tri-lands, another copy of Lightning Helix, and an alternate art Impulse. (Yes I know I basically paid 18 bucks for 6 dollars worth of cards, but that’s not the point here!) My buddy Zach was in the store at the time, so we sat down and battled a bunch of games.
Even though I’m a blue mage at heart, I started with the Speed deck while Zach piloted the Cunning deck.
At first I expected the red-based Speed deck to be a no-brain-necessary aggro fest, with just playing obvious hasty and annoying guys turn after turn, and attacking whenever possible. But this was not the case. Speed actually has two game-plans, one of which is fairly combo-like. Plan A surrounds Goblin token generation with cards like Krenko’s Command and Beetleback Chief, and Krenko pumping out an obscene number of dudes before the Cunning deck has time to respond to all of them.
Once enough little guys are in play, the combo is ready to go off, and Scourge Devil or Flame-Kin Zealot overrun the team into victory. I won a game with Krenko making 4 tokens on turn 6, 8 tokens on turn 7, and 16 tokens on turn 8, and then I unearthed Scourge Devil to send about 40 damage Zach’s way.
Alternatively, Ogre Battledriver can crack the whip on each freshly generated token to make each turn a growing nightmare for the opponent. If somehow that’s not enough action, Goblin Bombardment straps a little dynamite backpack onto all your creatures for you to throw directly at a face or potential blockers.
If Plan A fails (as Cunning usually doesn’t let you set up a crazy goblin-making machine without some interruption on their part), the Speed deck has a solid big-game Plan B.
This plan leans heavy on large monsters with haste and relentless creatures with the Unearth ability. A few smashes with Oni of Wild Places will quickly end the game (not to mention it’ll rebuy your Beetleback Chief and Flame-Kin Zealot for reset Plan A), and Fleshbag Marauder gives you some card advantage when you can sacrifice a 1/1 token in exchange for something decent on the Cunning side.
Speed also has plenty of good removal and burn spells to help round it out to be more than just an automatic play-and-turn style deck.
Now let’s take a look at Cunning.
Like I said before, I’m a blue mage at heart, so I was excited to switch decks and run the more “tricksy” one. Besides an awesome new art for Arcanis, the Omnipotent (he looks like something out of the Diablo games in this art), the Cunning deck really got me excited for Khans of Tarkir with all of the Morph cards. First off, you got the new Thousand Winds, which turned out to be a solid card played straight-up as a 5/6 flyer for 6 mana, but could also be a secret blowout played as a morph.
It might not find its way into Standard, but it has definitely serious Limited bomb potential depending on what is in the 180 remaining unspoiled Khans cards. The other morph cards in the Cunning deck come together to create a fairly decent soft lock on the Speed deck when given the chance to set up. Willbender protects the other cards from too many Goblin Bombardment activations or a burn/removal spell, while Echo Tracer can make sure Zurgo Helmsmasher doesn’t get to stay on the table very long (if you don’t have Lightning Helix to blast him on your turn when the indestructible shield is gone).
The rest of the Cunning deck helps reset your morph cards. Faerie Imposter and Stonecloaker get the “used” morphers back into your hand to be recast (note that Stonecloaker exiles a card from a graveyard and Speed has cards with Unearth, hint hint). I’m a little disappointed there isn’t a blink spell in the deck – Momentary Blink is begging to be the first card added to Cunning – but I could see how that would be too good to use on the more powerful morph cards like Thousand Winds. (EDIT: Evidence of my Bad Magic Player-ness here – Blink wouldn’t trigger the ‘when <card> is flipped up’ ability, but it would bring the 2/2 morph creature back into play flipped, so it’d still be a turn four 5/6 flyer with Thousand Winds morphed on turn 3 and blinked on turn 4…still good. I was thinking about the interaction Blink has on Akroma, Angel of Fury, which doesn’t have a flip-up triggered ability.)
The red splash in Cunning is there primarily for Lightning Angel as a strong win condition (and a great way to see how much fun Mantis Rider will be in Khans), for some harder removal like Lightning Helix and Inferno Trap, and to support Steam Augury to extend the deck’s card draw. Lightning Angel was integral in all the games won by Cunning, and I’m excited for the Khans of Tarkir smaller-butt version, Mantis Rider.
In the end the Cunning deck won the day, winning 4 games to 2. All the games were close, and with a few tweaks to both decks it really could be anyone’s game. For the first time in a while both Duel Decks contain complex combos and interactive mechanics, and I feel like Wizards really thought these lists through*.
My only real gripe is that I feel Arcanis, the Omnipotent is not the right ‘leader’ for the Cunning deck. Most of Cunning’s game plan is to keep mana open for the few counterspells it wields and to be able to flip morph cards in response to Speed’s actions. Arcanis doesn’t have flash or haste, so he absorbs a ton of mana (especially if you’re holding up 2UU so you can bounce him in response to removal) and a turn while you wait to use him for the 3-card draw. For one less mana you can play Jace’s Ingenuity on your opponent’s end step and have the same effect, since this deck has enough powerful cards that drawing three cards once is generally good enough to claim a win.
I think the appropriate ‘leader’ for Cunning would have been Venser, Shaper Savant. He fits the Cunning theme a bit more as a temporary counterspell, and he interacts better with the plan of flipping morph cards and resetting them for multiple uses. I’ll chalk up Arcanis being here as a reprint for EDH fans more than for a thematic fit, and I know a few folks really excited to sleeve up this new foil-awesomeness as their mono-blue general (and Venser was already reprinted with new art in From the Vault: 20)
As for the Speed deck, I love that a powerful burn spell like Banefire was included, especially since it gets around Cunning’s counterspells. However, the Cunning player ALWAYS has a morphed Willbender on the table, waiting to throw it back into your face (sorry Zach!).
Overall, Speed vs. Cunning is a great pickup for casual players and reprint hunters alike, and it really made me excited for Khans of Tarkir. Morph is back, Lightning Angel is (pretty much) back, Shards tri-color lands (for wedges) are back, and new awesome cards like Zurgo Helmsmasher and the Prowess mechanic – examples of all of these are here! (Sorry, no fetch lands though).
It’s an enjoyable pair of evenly-matched decks and it’ll give you Khan fever!
*(To be fair, the decks I like the least in the series were monocolored decks, which of course by their nature have less complicated capabilities, and the nature of multi-colored decks lends them to be more complex and advanced to pilot, but who cares.)