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Beginners' Guide: Flinging Fire in Duels 2013

This column is for new players wanting to get into the wonderful world of table top gaming. We explain the basics and point you in the right direction if you want to learn more about a specific game.

A couple of weeks ago Wizards of the Coast released Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, the stripped-down standalone version of Magic: The Gathering, on Xbox Live and Playstation Network. Added this year, for the first time, is an iOS version of the game for iPad owners (and iPhone owners with particularly good eyesight). DotP13 is WotC's latest weapon in a war to ensure that every single second of your life can be devoted to tapping lands, summoning creatures, and basically doing all the things that millions of Magic players have been doing obsessively for the past 18 years.

Bringing Magic to the iPad has opened the classic TCG up to a whole new audience and DotP13 makes a fantastic introduction to the game. As well as handling all the rules for you and providing an AI opponent to beat up on, the selection of preconstructed decks included are an ideal way of learning the game – they're almost the whole of Magic strategy presented in microcosm.

Beginning an ongoing series, Gamehead is going to give those new and returning DotP13 players a helping hand as we look at each of the ten decks in turn and answer some common questions for each one:

  1. What is the deck trying to do – how does it win?
  2. What cards can you unlock to improve It, and which should you play?
  3. What aspects of Magic strategy can we learn from this deck?

We're going to kick off this series with the deck that I first used to play through the Campaign mode, Chandra Nalaar's blazing mono-red “Born of Flame” deck.

Known for its fiery fury, "Born of Flame" offers hard-hitting creatures backed by plenty of burn.

The Starting 60

Let's see what you start off with:

2x Flame Slash
1x Rain of Embers
2x Torch Fiend
4x Searing Spear
2x Fiery Hellhound
2x Ruby Medallion
1x Prodigal Pyromancer
1x Dragon Hatchling
2x Pyre Charger
3x Chandra's Outrage
2x Furnace Whelp
2x Chandra's Fury
1x Chandra's Phoenix
2x Firewing Phoenix
1x Hostility
2x Fire Elemental
1x Magma Phoenix
1x Skarrgan Firebird
1x Flame Wave
1x Flamebreak
2x Flames of the Firebrand
24x Mountain

The original 60 cards you begin Chandra's campaign with is a pretty aggressive one, in keeping with red mana's role as the color of destruction, fire, and chaos. The deck is a straight 50/50 split between creatures and spells, combining hard-hitting creatures and fiery direct damage – perhaps red's signature calling card. It's a mana-hungry deck, though, with your creatures tending to cost five or six mana (Fire Elemental, Magma Phoenix) and the smaller creatures like Pyre Charger and Fiery Hellhound requiring you to use their ‘Firebreathing' ability to deal maximum damage (paying red mana to give them +1/+0 a bunch of times).

Compared to the other decks this puts your creatures right between a rock and a hard place – your cheaper creatures like Pyre Charger and Torch Fiend will be swamped by the true weenie rush decks like “Goblin Gangland” and “Peacekeepers”, and your big hitters will struggle to bludgeon their way through the solid muscle of “Pack Instinct” or “Ancient Wilds”. The real trick is to try and ensure that your creatures don't ever have to fight the other team at all, and that's where the second half of the deck comes in…

Compared to the other decks, “Born of Flame” has more creature removal than anybody – even Liliana's mono-black control deck “Obedient Dead” can't match the 16 burn spells Chandra has available to clear the path for her fiery team. Bottom line: your deck is made up of cards that are either; a creature, a creature removal spell, a Ruby Medallion. Pretty simple, huh? It means “Born of Flame” is a very consistent deck because you've so many cards that can do the same job – where Ajani draws Divine Favor not Chastise, you draw Searing Spear not Chandra's Outrage and burn their creature anyway. That consistency is one of the real hidden strengths of the deck .

That simple message in deck construction also means your gameplan is pretty clear:

1. Play a creature
2. Burn their creature
3. Hit them with your creature
4. Repeat to fade

At some point you'll probably notice that your opponent is down to 7 life, that you're holding Chandra's Fury and Searing Spear, and that nothing says “I love you” like burning somebody's face off. Ready for Game Two?

"Nug ya", "Targeting you", "No, you", etc. There's nothing quite like pointing a Searing Spear at a player instead of a creature.

All the rest is details – I like to ensure that I get good value from my Firebreathing creatures and would usually prefer to attack with a 6/2 Fiery Hellhound than only deal 2 damage and play a Firewing Phoenix. To paraphrase an old proverb: “A point of damage done is worth two on the board”, which is particularly true when you're playing a red deck and can draw some direct damage to win the game at any point once you've whittled your opponent's lifetotal down a bit.

Star Card: Flame Slash. This humble little removal spell is a 5-star heavyweight. Just think how many creatures have a toughness of 4 that would stop your offense dead: Indrik Stomphowler, Sentinel Spider, Garruk's Packleader, Guardians of Akrasa, Roaring Primodox, Kraken Hatchling, Seraph of Dawn. The Flame Slash gets your opponents creature out of the way for the super-bargain cost of just one mana, allowing you to either pump your Pyre Charger to your heart's content or play a Firewing Phoenix and add more pressure.

Reinforcements

Here are the first 30 cards you can unlock to upgrade “Born of Flame”:

1x Magma Phoenix
2x Fire Servant
2x Swiftfoot Boots
1x Dragon Hatchling
3x Searing Blaze
1x Chandra's Phoenix
2x Obsidian Fireheart
1x Inferno Titan
2x Cone of Flame
1x Blaze
1x Disaster Radius
1x Earthquake
3x Flames of the Blood Hand
1x Chandra's Spitfire
1x Flamebreak
1x Fireblast
2x Red Sun's Zenith
1x Chandra's Fury
1x Chandra's Outrage
1x Firewing Phoenix
1x Beacon of Destruction

There are some fantastic cards in there, so let's quickly look at a few of them:

Fire Servant: doubles the damage your burn spells do, which can win the game almost immediately. I'm not a big fan of Fire Servant because he usually has a huge target painted on his chest as soon as he comes into play, but if you've got gas in hand and mana untapped things can get very spicy very quickly.

Searing Blaze: this ultra-efficient removal spell is one of my favourite additions to “Born of Flame”, allowing you to deal 3 damage to your opponent at the same as killing his creature (assuming you had a land to play for Landfall). I like killing creatures, and I like killing opponents, so I like this card.

Blaze & Red Sun's Zenith: these two cards introduce you to the X spell, a spell which gets bigger the more mana you pump into it. The X spells really add to your deck's ability to close out a game with a big fireball direct to your opponent's face, even if he's stopped your creature offense.

Obsidian Fireheart: wowsers, this guy is a red deck all on his own! As a 4/4 for 1RRR the Fireheart is bigger than you would usually get for four mana, and his ability to set your opponent's lands on fire is something that can add an air of inevitability to your victory. It's mana-hungry, but if you've got the 1RR spare then go wild!

Earthquake & Flamebreak: these two cards combine to allow you to sweep up a load of little ground creatures at once. That's invaluable against the likes of “Goblin Gangland” and “Peacekeepers”, although because they don't damage flyers you'll still need help against “Crosswinds”.

Cone of Flame: an upgraded copy of Flames of the Firebrand, Cone of Flame can sweep up a couple of your opponent's creatures and even throw a few spare points of damage direct to the bad guy himself. It's worth remembering that you'll need to choose three different targets if you want to deal 3 damage to something and sometimes you'll have to hurt yourself or a creature you control as well to get that third target. No pain, no gain!

With a sideboard packed full of YET MORE aggressive creatures and YET MORE fiery burn spells you're really given a simple choice about which you'd rather do. If you add in the creatures you can create a faster deck, removing our slower Magma Phoenix and Fire Elementals with more Dragon Hatchlings and Chandra's Phoenix, or the superstar Obsidian Fireheart. At the other end of the scale you could look at taking out all those mana-hungry firebreathing Pyre Chargers and Fiery Hellhounds to add a whole slew of new and creative ways to BBQ your opponent's creatures.

They both sound like good options, so why not do both?

Well, that's a perfect way to introduce one of the key elements of Magic strategy…

The Rule of 60

Decks should be 60 cards. Period. It's a simple tenet, but it's one of the key parts of Magic strategy that new players most struggle with when they unlock new cards. All the cards do something good, and you can easily imagine a time when you'd want that card in your hand, so why would you leave it out of the deck? It's a good question.

Once you've unlocked all of "Born of Flame"s goodies, what do you do to improve it?

Magic is a game of probability. You're pretty much never going to draw every single card in your deck, so deciding to add a card into your deck isn't a guarantee that you're going to draw it. More importantly there's even less chance that you're going to draw a card precisely when have you need it. The more specific a card's function is, the less likely you are to draw it when you need it, and the more likely you are to draw it at some other point when you didn't need it.

Let's pick an example from “Born of Flame” – Rain of Embers

When is Rain of Embers good?

  1. If your opponent has lots of creatures with 1 toughness
  2. You don't have Pyre Charger or Firewing Phoenix in play
  3. Your opponent is on 1 life and Rain of Embers will kill him

When is Rain of Embers bad?

  1. Pretty much any other time

That sounds obvious, but then you can probably think of plenty of times when Rain of Embers would have been really good – Ajani has Serra Ascendant, Yeva brings Elvish Visionary and Wood Elves, Nefarox has the annoying Aven Squire and Child of Night, etc. Every opponent has creatures that Rain of Embers is good against. So we should keep Rain of Embers in the deck, right?

No, because MOST of the time they won't have lots of 1/1 creatures. It's far more likely that you'll draw Rain of Embers and wish you'd drawn something else instead – a Phoenix, a Flame Slash, hell it could have been Inferno Titan! And the times when they DO have lots of 1/1s… well you probably won't be holding that sole Rain of Embers anyway.

Still not convinced? Let's look at it this way instead: you're building a deck from scratch - what's the first card you put it? It's the best card, right? Lebron James is the first name on the team sheet for Miami Heat, and your best card is the first one into your deck. Ok, so what's next? The second best card, then the third, then the fourth… at some point you get to your 36th best card, add 24 land, and you've got a deck.

Pop quiz, hotshot:

Q: What's the chance that you'll draw your best card right now?
A: 1/60

Q: What's the worst card you possibly draw, ignoring land?
A: Your 36th best card

Now let's carry on adding cards to our deck, right up to the limit of 100 that DotP13 lets you have in your deck…
Q: What's the chance that you'll draw your best card?
A: 1/100

Q: What's the worst card you possibly draw, ignoring land?
A: Your 63rd best card

By adding cards above 60 you dilute the best parts of your deck – you think you need that Rain of Embers, but it's actually making your whole deck slightly worse!

The Rule of 61!

In the physical game of Magic the rule of 60 holds, but in DotP13 there is a strong argument that 61 cards is often better than 60. This is because the AI is adding the lands for you as you put new cards in – the first time you add a card an extra land isn't added, but when you add a second card the deck size jumps up to 63 cards as another basic land is added.

If the changes you make to a deck mean that the average cost of your cards is a lot lower than it originally was (eg. If you took out all the Magma Phoenix, Fire Elementals and firebreathers from “Born of Flame”) then you probably don't need all those 24 lands any more. You don't have the option of taking a land out to play 23 lands in a 60 card deck, but you DO have the choice of adding an extra card in to play 24 lands in a 61 card deck.

  • 24 land in 60 cards: 40%
  • 23 land in 60 cards: 38%
  • 24 land in 61 cards: 39%

It's only small difference – just a 1% smaller chance of drawing land – but that 1% may be the difference between pulling a Mountain or a Flame Wave!

Here's One I Made Earlier

To finish, this is the “Born of Flame” decklist I'm playing now, after unlocking all the cards. Unlike many Chandra players I've kept most of the Firebreathers in, and would go so far as to say that Pyre Charger is one of my favourite cards. Many decklists I've seen online maximise the burn to turn into a control deck, adding in the Flamebreaks, Earthquakes and Cone of Flames so they can toast any number of creatures. I've remained true to the original spirit of Chandra's deck with a 50/50 split of creatures and burn, and I'm still happy to let my creatures do most of the work while I keep my burn for removing blockers.

2 Dragon Hatchling
2 Pyre Charger
2 Torch Fiend
2 Chandra's Phoenix
1 Chandra's Spitfire
2 Fiery Hellhound
3 Firewing Phoenix
2 Obsidian Fireheart
1 Inferno Titan
1 Hostility
2 Red Sun's Zenith
2 Flame Slash
3 Searing Blaze
4 Searing Spear
2 Flames of the Firebrand
3 Chandra's Outrage
1 Beacon of Destruction
1 Fireblast
24 Mountain

I've played this deck with great success, both against the AI in campaign and against other players online.

The best matchups are against “Dream Puppets”, because Jace's Font of Mythos only helps you fill up on direct damage to win the game with, all your instant creature removal is great against “Exalted Darkness”, which loves to attack with one guy and needs to keep lots of creatures in play, while “Obedient Dead” really struggles to handle all your recurring Phoenixes coming back from the dead.

On the flip side, this build of the red deck doesn't have any of the board sweepers like Flamebreak and Earthquake which makes the match against “Peacekeepers” and “Goblin Gangland” much tougher. Those games can still be won, but you're more dependent on using your Phoenix and other creatures as blockers early in the game – just staying alive and knowing you can call them back from the graveyard later, once you've fought off the assault. The toughest match is Garruk's “Pack Instinct” because his creatures can get so big, especially if they can land a Blanchwood Armor on something – against Garruk you need your firebreathers to get really big and trade off with larger green creatures, then maximise the damage from your flyers. “Pack Instinct” is a tough match for any build of “Born of Flame”, though.

That rounds off our first look at the preconstructed decks from Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013, which has hopefully demonstrated just how much depth there is to Magic: The Gathering, even in such a restricted metagame. Next time I'll be swapping my pyromaniac urges for the tree-hugging hippies of Yeva's “Ancient Wilds” deck, looking at how the concept of Card Synergy makes that deck far more than the sum of its parts.

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