When I first discovered Duel Decks, it was the Knights vs. Dragons faction cycle, featuring Knight of the Reliquary and Bogardan Hellkite. I only played a couple of games with it, however, so I never really got much of a feel for how the Duel Decks were supposed to play out. Some time later, I saw Ajani vs Nicol Bolas at the store and immediately scooped it up. I've been a fan of Nicol Bolas since his elder dragon days, so I was excited for an opportunity to see his Planeswalker incarnation in action. I brought it in and suited up s0osleepie with Nicol Bolas, while I took Ajani, and we played and played and played. We weren't rigorously keeping track of the record, but I know the matches were fairly balanced with neither deck ever dominating the table for any length of time. Sure some games were pretty one-sided, but they seemed to balance out over all, leaving a pretty even split of game wins. If Ajani got a strong start, he would usually be able to take the game, but when Nicol Bolas was able to drag the game out for a few more turns, things started looking up for the elder dragon-turned-planeswalker. Ajani Vengeant didn't tend to win games by himself, but if Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker entered the equation, the game was all but decided.
This week we get the latest installment of Duel Decks, Venser vs. Koth, featuring Venser, the Sojourner and Koth of the Hammer. I'm not entirely knowledgeable about the story side of things, so I'm not quite clear on why they're fighting, given that I understand they're on the same side. What's important is that they are fighting, and it's up to us to make sure that somebody comes out of it a winner. On first inspection of the decks, my assessment was that Koth would take over games more easily then Venser, given his supply of removal, direct damage, and heavy-hitting creatures. Venser's deck, however, would be more interesting to play, though the power level would be a bit lower overall. So far, with just seven games under my belt, the record stands at 5-2 in favor of Koth, and I can't say I'm too surprised.
In most of the games I played, Venser saw a lot of action earlier in the game, with Sky Spirit into Steel of the Godhead causing quite a nuisance, and the likes of Preordain and Augury Owl ensuring that they kept up some pressure with library manipulation. With only two counterspells in the form of Overrule, however, Venser's creatures are weak to the adequate removal in Koth's deck. One well placed Seismic Strike or equivalent can usually clear out the early aggressor, leaving fairly weak creatures with Enters the Battlefield effects. Some notable exceptions are Slith Strider and Scroll Thief which can net you some card draw in the right circumstances. Vanish Into Memory really gets to shine in this matchup, though, between pumpable creatures, Plated Geopede's Landfall procs, and equipment, it's not hard at all to set up a situation where you draw six or more and only discard one.
The Planeswalkers themselves don't seem to dominate the games as much as, say, Nicol Bolas does. They're not able to defend themselves with tokens or removal abilities, so the times one or the other came out, they didn't last very long. In a lot of cases they only got to activate an ability once, so be sure to make it count. I think Koth stands up a little better in this light, since his -2 ability can generate a ton of mana, which in turn allows you to cast spells to actually affect the board state. Venser's abilities don't have the same immediate effect on the game, and the most you'll be able to get out of him is a good scry or life swing. Wizards even included Emblem tokens for both Planeswalkers' ultimate abilities, though I haven't had a chance to utilize either to date.
One thing the Duel Decks do not seem to be at all is an introduction to the game. Scry is not the most complex of mechanics, but a deck built around scrying and bouncing is probably a bit more advanced than someone who's new to the game should be handling. Koth, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward in what he wants to do. He clears the path for his creatures, or with his creatures, in the case of Bloodfire Colossus, and swings big with pumpable critters like Fiery Hellhound. Of course, if you are pretty familiar with the game, and don't mind piloting the slightly unfavored Venser deck, Koth may be a great way to get a reluctant friend into the game.
Q: I control a Shrine of Burning Rage with three counters on it, and my opponent controls a Serra Angel. On my opponent's turn, they cast Oblivion Ring. If I sacrifice my Shrine of Burning Rage, targeting the player in response, what happens?
A: In short, if you sacrifice your Shrine while Oblivion Ring is still on the Stack, your opponent will be forced to exile their own Serra Angel, as long as neither of you control any other legal targets for the Oblivion Ring. This is because Oblivion Ring does not target while it is on the Stack, rather its mandatory Exile ability only triggers once it enters the Battlefield. As such, if you remove the desired target before Oblivion Ring's ability triggers, you'll force the opponent to exile another target. On the other hand, if you wait until Oblivion Ring's ability tries to exile Shrine of Burning Rage, and sacrifice the Shrine while Oblivion Ring's ability is on the Stack, then the ability will be countered by game rules for lack of a target.
608.2b If the spell or ability specifies targets, it checks whether the targets are still legal. A target that's no longer in the zone it was in when it was targeted is illegal. Other changes to the game state may cause a target to no longer be legal; for example, its characteristics may have changed or an effect may have changed the text of the spell. If the source of an ability has left the zone it was in, its last known information is used during this process. The spell or ability is countered if all its targets, for every instance of the word "target," are now illegal. If the spell or ability is not countered, it will resolve normally. However, if any of its targets are illegal, the part of the spell or ability's effect for which it is an illegal target can't perform any actions on that target or make that target perform any actions. The effect may still determine information about illegal targets, though, and other parts of the effect for which those targets are not illegal may still affect them.
Question of the Week