The Comboist Manifesto Volume I, Article 8: A Comboist Review of Heroes vs. Monsters
In 2007, Wizards of the Coast introduced a new product line: Duel Decks. They are boxed products consisting of two themed decks, tuned to face each other. Each pair of Duel Decks has its own expansion symbol and each deck includes a foil, alternate-art rare. In about half of the cases, the foil cards for both decks are planeswalkers, and the theme is simply a conflict between two planeswalkers. In the other cases, the conflict is between two opposing factions or tribes. Since there have already been 23 different planeswalker subtypes, we can all rest assured that it will be a long time before Jace has been pitted against all of them in Duel Decks.
I've been aware of the existence of Duel Decks since they started, but in the past, I paid very little attention to them, like all preconstructed decks. That wasn't a matter of policy for me. It's not as though I eschew preconstructed decks because I want so badly to build my own decks. In fact, I'm a pretty bad deck builder and prefer to let other people do that hard work for me, so that once someone else has built a deck that I like, I can test it, play it, and perhaps make some fine adjustments to it if I feel the need to do so. Even though I'd prefer to have someone else do most of the deckbuilding work rather than starting from scratch, the preconstructed decks packaged by Wizards of the Coast have just been too weak, too unfocused, for me to want to bother with them. Also, I've generally preferred to spend my money elsewhere. Duel Decks are a step up from the more traditional precons, but they're also even more expensive.
Recently, a confluence of circumstances has led me to revise my stance toward Duel Decks. Firstly, most of my old friends with whom I used to play Magic have left the game and I'm no longer involved with any playgroups, so I can't very easily outsource my own deckbuilding (although I can still netdeck). Secondly, these days I'm mainly playing Magic against myself, and these decks are designed to be played against each other. Thirdly, Duel Decks are a good way to have fun when there is a discrepancy of card availability between two players (I've been playing Magic for over 16 years and have a reasonably large collection, whereas my younger brother got some booster packs and precons from some of the new sets, so my decks would easily beat his decks, but we were able to have balanced and enjoyable games by pitting the Heroes vs. Monsters decks against each other). Fourthly, I've been so intently focused on tier one Legacy competitive decks that I've lost touch with the more varied casual cheesy combos that I grew up with, and it turns out that Duel Decks are loaded with that sort of thing. Fifthly, and most importantly, I found myself owning three pairs of Duel Decks. No, I didn't steal them: I received Heroes vs. Monsters as a gift, and that sparked my interest enough to investigate some binders that I'd inherited from a friend's collection. I had known that there were cards from three different sets of Duel Decks there, but I'd assumed that they were fragmentary. In the case of the cards from Divine vs. Demonic, I was right. But after taking inventory, I discovered that I have owned Elspeth vs. Tezzeret and Phyrexia vs. The Coalition without even realizing it.
Once I sleeved up my Duel Decks and began testing them, it wasn't long before I decided that they'd be interesting material for articles. I might even buy other Duel Decks, but for now, the plan is just to cover the three pairs that I already own, starting with Heroes vs. Monsters. Once I've playtested Elspeth vs. Tezzeret some more, I'll review that one, and then at some point I hope to get around to testing Phyrexia vs. The Coalition.
From what I've stumbled across on other sites, most articles written about Duel Decks have been rather cursory in terms of analysis. Often, references are made that indicate the the authors have only actually pitted the decks against each other three times. That is not a very good sample size! On account of my aforementioned lack of friends, I don't have any hapless victims to help test these decks against each other, but I'm used to this sort of thing, and, while not ideal, I don't think it's too big a problem. Also, I've tested these decks a lot more than most people seem inclined to. I wanted a sample that would be large enough for some real statistical tests. So I decided that before I'd even begin this article, I'd test Heroes vs. Monsters, piloting both decks myself, 50 times.
If enough people read this article, I'm about to disappoint some of them, but I'd better get this out of the way right now: there's no actual statistical workup here. And that's not just because I'm lazy, although that's part of it. While I do have some basic training in such matters (for chemistry—I've never aspired to be a mathematician or anything like that), I didn't know what kind of data I might record that would be relevant, beyond a simple win/loss figure. It's something I've mulled over, but for now I'm stumped. If anyone has any ideas about this, please do comment. Maybe I can do a better job injecting some rigor into my future articles. Even after I'd done most of my testing, I assumed that I could at least use a significance test to find out how probable it is that the deck that came out ahead is stronger, with the null hypothesis that both decks are evenly matched, with the assumptions that I piloted both decks perfectly and unbiasedly (I don't claim that those assumptions are completely correct, but I do think that they are insignificant in this case—both decks are pretty straightforward and I'm not that bad a player). That should be easy enough that even I could pull it off, but I find it to be a moot point in this case: both decks won 25 games each in my 50 test games.
The complete lack of deviation from the null hypothesis makes that result just too dull to bother analyzing. But I do think it suggests something that is of interest: whoever balanced these decks did a pretty good job. These decks are designed for flavor. They're theme decks. In the case of Heroes vs. Monsters, they were also designed to showcase new cards from Theros, a set that had not yet been released. These cards had not yet been tested by a wide audience. Somehow, with the more important requirements of making the individual decks interesting, Wizards of the Coast managed to make these decks balanced against each other. I find that fascinating. I'd imagine it required considerable tinkering and far more testing than my 50 games. But hey, no one's paying me for this, and there's some old saying about getting what one pays for, so 50 games is apparently what you, my readers, paid for.
Hey, guess what. It's that part of the article where I introduce the decklists. I'd think of a clever way of setting that up, but you didn't pay me enough for that. Oh, I guess I'll note that each deck has a single mythic rare, which is the only foil card in each deck and also has alternate artwork. The Heroes deck gets Sun Titan (a reprint from Magic 2011). The Monsters deck gets Polukranos, World Eater (one of the Theros preview cards). These big creatures appear on the front of the packaging for the product, acting sort of like flagship cards for their respective decks.
1x Anax and Cymede
2x Armory Guard
1x Cavalry Pegasus
1x Dawnstrike Paladin
1x Fencing Ace
1x Figure of Destiny
2x Freewind Equenaut
1x Gustcloak Sentinel
1x Kamahl, Pit Fighter
1x Nobilis of War
1x Somberwald Vigilante
2x Stun Sniper
1x Sun Titan
1x Thraben Valiant
1x Truefire Paladin
1x Battle Mastery
1x Bonds of Faith
1x Daily Regimen
1x Griffin Guide
1x Magma Jet
1x Miraculous Recovery
1x Moment of Heroism
1x Ordeal of Purphoros
1x Pay No Heed
1x Smite the Monstrous
1x Stand Firm
1x Undying Rage
1x Winds of Rath
2x Boros Guildgate
2x New Benalia
2x Blood Ogre
1x Conquering Manticore
1x Crater Hellion
1x Crowned Ceratok
2x Deadly Recluse
1x Deus of Calamity
1x Ghor-Clan Savage
2x Gorehorn Minotaurs
1x Kavu Predator
1x Krosan Tusker
1x Orcish Lumberjack
1x Polukranos, World Eater
1x Satyr Hedonist
1x Skarrgan Firebird
1x Skarrgan Skybreaker
1x Troll Ascetic
2x Valley Rannet
1x Zhur-Taa Druid
1x Beast Within
1x Destructive Revelry
1x Dragon Blood
1x Fires of Yavimaya
2x Prey Upon
1x Shower of Sparks
1x Terrifying Presence
2x Volt Charge
2x Kazandu Refuge
2x Llanowar Reborn
1x Skarrg, the Rage Pits
Examining the contents of these decks, some things are obvious from the start. Both decks are basically beatdown-oriented, but with some notable differences. The Heroes deck is a sort of Boros-style beatdown deck with a minor focus on auras. The Monsters deck is kind of like a traditional R/G Beats deck, but with some of its midrange power replaced with more heavy-hitters and with the bloodthirst mechanic playing a key role. Both decks have several ways to put +1/+1 counters onto creatures. Both decks have some removal spells that are practically guaranteed to be effective against each other. Even though both decks are generally aggressive and use red cards, they have no cards in common other than basic Mountains (I gather that this might have been a deliberate move by the designers, to make the gameplay more diverse). Actually playing these decks provides more insight, some of which might not have been so apparent from just glancing at the decklists...
Speed: The Heroes deck is faster. It's hard to quantify because there's a lot of interaction between these decks, especially during combat, but the difference isn't as huge as one might think. The Heroes deck might average one turn faster, at most. This does not mean that the Heroes deck aggressing early on and trying to outrace the Monsters deck before it could get going was the norm. In some games, that was the situation, but many games went very differently. In fact, the Heroes deck can have a better late game. The Monsters deck has some fatties, but they can't generally compete with an avatar-form Figure of Destiny or a Fencing Ace that has been enchanted to have flying and also has a big pile of +1/+1 counters.
Control: Pretty much a tie. Both decks have around the same density of control elements, and they seem to work equally well. The Heroes deck gets more combat tricks, but the Monsters deck has a lot of opportunities to just kill kill things and then follow up with huge attacks. Both approaches work. The Monsters deck is likelier to get bigger creatures sooner, and can use that to try to control combat. The Heroes deck can control the air sooner, and can swarm with smaller creatures while setting up a threat that will need to be answered.
Topdecking: If the game comes to a standstill, if board-sweepers shake things up, or if the game gets drawn out with neither deck securing an advantage, the Monsters deck has the advantage. I said that the Heroes deck can have a better late game, and that's true, but it's contingent on the deck's combo elements. The Monsters deck is more Pattern B and the Heroes deck is more Pattern A. If both decks have lands and end up in a topdecking war, the Monsters deck has a considerable advantage.
Variance/Consistency: The Monsters deck is more consistent and the Heroes deck has greater variance. Those two concepts aren't necessarily opposites, but if two decks are evenly matched, the one that is more consistent probably has lower variance, and that's true in this case. What I mean is that the Monsters deck is composed in such a way that its overall power level from game to game is more consistent. Both decks have good games and bad games, but the Heroes deck is more likely to draw configurations of cards that don't let it compete with its opponent and also more likely to draw configurations of cards that totally dominate. One of the major issues I anticipate with analyzing Duel Decks using insufficient sample sizes is that the interplay between variance and consistency wouldn't reveal itself, leading to mistaken impressions. Players could get a few games in which the deck with high variance gets amazing draws and wins decisively, or ones in which it gets abysmal draws and fails. But in the long run, it's the total win/loss ratio that matters, not the seeming level of dominance in any individual game.
Combo: Heroes. It's got to be Heroes. The Monsters deck mostly has only very minor interactions, relying on creatures that are big to make up for a lack of utility. Cards like Annax and Cymede, Freewind Equenaut, Auramancer, and Winds of Rath let auras do more for the Heroes deck. Even though the Heroes deck is more sophisticated and plays a bit more like a combo deck than the simplistic Monsters deck, I personally favor the Monsters deck, and was hoping that it would have the edge in my testing. That's not because I have a fondness for mindless red and green brute force. It's something that runs much deeper than my preferences in the game of Magic: the Gathering. I love monsters. Go, go, Godzilla. Yes, I know that Hercules kills the hydra and Saint George kills the dragon. Don't care. Heroes suck. I'm rooting for the monsters every time.
Individual cards (Heroes)
Sun Titan: This big guy won me very few games. Even if I draw Sun Titan, I also need the six mana to cast it, and in most cases, the game is decided one way or the other by that point. In a small portion of the games where Sun Titan made appearances, its triggered ability actually helped. Often it was just a 6/6 with vigilance for six mana. That's not bad, but against a deck full of similarly sized creatures, it's not that great.
Anax and Cymede: An intriguing preview for the “heroic” mechanic. The heroic ability doesn't look like much, but it actually won some games. Also, a vigilant 3/2 with first strike that hits the board on turn three is pretty good. Not the most amazing card, but it was consistently good in the games in which it showed up.
Figure of Destiny: This thing entering the battlefield on turn one and not being answered was a death sentence for the Monsters deck. I sometimes skipped decent three-drops just to make this thing a 4/4 warrior earlier and get more damage in early on. In its final form, Figure of Destiny outclasses almost anything the Monsters deck has.
Kamahl, Pit Fighter: Primarily, I used this as a finisher. Expensive, but well worth it, Kamahl is guaranteed to damage something.
Nobilis of War: Five mana for a 3/4 means this thing had better have abilities to make it worthwhile. Fortunately, flying means that Nobilis of War can almost always be attacking and triggering its ability. Although its mana cost means that it might not come in soon enough to swing a game every time, it usually presents a threat that must be answered quickly.
Winds of Rath: While it sometimes just ends up being an overcosted Wrath of God, this thing is a complete game-winner when I do have a strong attacker that is enchanted. Combo with Miraculous Recovery.
Truefire Paladin: A perfectly acceptable part of a creature swarm to put pressure on my opponent early on. Once midrange options come online, Truefire Paladin isn't so impressive, especially if I'm missing land drops. In long games, especially if this gets enchanted, it's a force to be reckoned with.
Fencing Ace: Lackluster by itself, but a stellar target for auras. Well, there's the nonbo with Battle Mastery, but everything else is golden, especially Daily Regimen.
Stun Sniper: Utility, utility, utility. Kills Zhur-Taa Druid. Shuts down blocking. Stalls big attacks by bloodthirsty creatures. The deck has two of these and I'm always happy to see them.
Gustcloak Sentinel: Yawn.
Righteousness: What are you going to do, monsters? Not attack? Righteousness is basically a “kill attacking creature” spell.
Daily Regimen: I could not believe how often I drew this thing. It defied probability and won the Heroes deck some otherwise doomed games. Combos with everything in the whole deck, can drop very early, and beats everything in long games. The only bigger threat I feel like I can have in the Heroes deck is probably Figure of Destiny.
Miraculous Recovery: A bit expensive, but almost always useful. There's a nifty combo with Auramancer in some games, but the main point in favor of this card is that it is such a flexible way to generate a threat.
Griffin Guide: I'm annoyed when I have to cast it on something that is already flying, but otherwise, Griffin Guide is good.
Ordeal of Purphoros: If it goes uninterrupted and gets sacrificed, I probably win. In part that's just because I'm attacking so much without my creature dying, but the card is good too. If I have to go on the defensive for too long, it's a dead draw, but otherwise it gets the job done. Daily Regimen makes blowing Ordeal of Purphoros up early a possibility, but that combo is highly situational.
Battle Mastery: Deadly on anything with flying.
Undying Rage: Good on paper, but somehow didn't work out all that often.
Condemn: Well, it's no Swords to Plowshares, but it works. This removal spell definitely won me some games, so I can't complain.
Pyrokinesis: Too expensive and the alternate cost is too often unworkable. Helped me in a few games, but wasn't great.
Magma Jet: Instant-speed damage is instant-speed damage. While I'll never be fond of Magma Jet, it's a sensible card for this deck.
New Benalia: I guess they didn't want to preview Temple of Triumph for some reason, even though it's strictly superior. Yes, the Temple is a rare, but that's a poor excuse.
Dawnstrike Paladin: Good if there's not some big monster in the way. Actually, lifelink means this guy is likely to be useful anyway.
Auramancer: Sometimes Auramancer is a dud, but the Heroes deck has enough enchantments that its ability is generally good. It can combo with any enchantment in the deck, of course.
Freewind Equenaut: Aerial superiority is the key to success. Enchanting this would be sensible even without its special ability.
Cavalry Pegasus: Cheap, flying, and comes with a bit of utility. I'll take it. The human-boosting ability has some combo possibility, mostly with Anax and Cymede.
Armory Guard: Well, it blocks most creatures that the Monsters deck can throw at it.
Somberwald Vigilante: A small creature with a mildly annoying ability.
Bonds of Faith: Do you like options? I like options. This card has at least two of them.
Smite the Monstrous: Not the best removal spell ever, but you know that given the theme, they just had to include this one. It's useful in pretty much every game.
Moment of Heroism: A decent combat trick.
Stand Firm: A mediocre combat trick.
Pay No Heed: Don't worry. I won't.
Boros Guildgate: Well, it has a combo with Armory Guard. That's about it.
Individual cards (Monsters)
Polukranos, World Eater: In part because this deck also contains Fires of Yavimaya, my first thought was Blastoderm, and older 5/5 for the exact same mana cost. Of course, Polukranos isn't actually anything like Blastoderm for the most part, lacking fading and also lacking shroud. But there's still overlap in that both cards are good for the same general reason: four mana for a 5/5 is a good deal. At worst, Polukranos is a very efficient creature that will become a target for a removal spell. But if it isn't answered, the “monstrosity” mechanic that it previews can kill something and probably lead to victory. Even if Polukranos might eat a removal spell more often than I actually get to use the monstrosity, that's still getting the job done, in a way.
Deus of Calamity: If it's not to late to start swinging away by the time this thing shows up, that probably wins me the game. The usual response to big tramplers is to block the other attackers and let the trampler through, since it was going to do damage anyway, so chump-blocking isn't feasible. Deus of Calamity presents a Catch-22: block it and lose your puny blockers or don't block it and let me blow up your lands. Either way, I win.
Crater Hellion: A classic. Crater Hellion won me several topdeck wars.
Skarrgan Firebird: I won't say Skarrgan Firebird is definitively the most impressive bloodthirst creature, but there's certainly a case to be made for it. By the time I have the mana to cast this, I can usually trigger the bloodthirst. It turns out that a flying 6/6 is worth six mana, and recursion is quite a bonus. If the Heroes deck starts taking over the skies, I'm always eager to have Skarrgan Firebird solve that problem.
Conquering Manticore: I'm not really a fan of this mechanic, which, as far as I know, doesn't have a real name. Wizards of the Coast keeps making red cards that have “steal an opponent's creature and give it haste, but then give it back at the end of the turn.” I don't care much for it, and this deck doesn't have a sacrifice outlet to actually capitalize on the ability. It's still a 5/5 flier, so it's not bad to draw, but I'm just not into this sort of thing, at least not on paper. In my testing, Conquering Manticore carried its weight and then some, stealing multiple games with its ability when I was almost completely sure that the Heroes deck would win.
Troll Ascetic: A good card that this deck isn't really built to get much use out of. As a midrange option, Troll Ascetic doesn't really do enough. Too often, I can't afford to keep the mana open to regenerate this thing.
Skarrgan Skybreaker: Because it costs seven mana, there were many games in which I drew this and could never cast it. Otherwise, it was good to have. The activated ability won a few games here and there.
Kavu Predator: The triggered ability hardly ever went off. This just isn't the right deck to maximize the potential of Kavu Predator. Still, a 2/2 trampler for two mana is a fine deal on its own, and helps shore up this deck's weak early game.
Crowned Ceratok: Moderately useful.
Dragon Blood: It pales in comparison to Daily Regimen in the Heroes deck, but Dragon Blood has a lot of combo potential in this deck. Pump up a Skarrgan Skybreaker before sacrificing it. Put counters and your whole army and then proliferate with Volt Charge. Turn Blood Ogre into a first striker that can crush some heroes.
Fires of Yavimaya: Another classic. I won't go into all the details. If you've never experienced Fires decks, you'll have to check them out some time. The only problem is that there's only one copy of it in this deck.
Destructive Revelry: High-quality removal. Even though it's not some chase rare, I consider this to be the most impressive Theros preview card in the set and one of the best cards in Theros overall. Destructive Revelry is a great card.
Regrowth: It's still good, even if it's not as prevalent as it once was.
Pyroclasm: Usually needs to be drawn early. Excellent sideboard card for tournament play and hates on the swarminess of the Heroes deck quite well.
Beast Within: Backfires too much.
Skarrg, the Rage Pits: +1/+1 and trample. Very nice.
Llanowar Reborn: Mediocre, but it works well with Volt Charge.
Kazandu Refuge: Next.
Zhur-Taa Druid: Mana acceleration is a pretty obvious inclusion in this sort of deck. It also provides an outlet for the bloodthirst creatures. The damage can really add up in some games, too.
Krosan Tusker: Versatile. Lately, I see more of its smaller cousin, Kalonian Tusker, but the original Tusker is not to be underestimated. Yeah, in most games I just end up cycling it, but that does give me card advantage and potential mana-fixing. Later in games, it's better to just drop the 6/5 creature and start attacking.
Deadly Recluse: Small, but very effective against fliers. These buy time for the Monsters deck to catch up against the superior tempo of the Heroes deck. The gameplan is to slow things down and then drop some fatties.
Valley Rannet: Not Krosan Tusker.
Satyr Hedonist: Either a small creature that stands a chance at trading up in combat or a useful bit of mana acceleration.
Gorehorn Minotaurs: Bloodthirst.
Ghor-Clan Savage: Bloodthirst.
Blood Ogre: Bloodthirst. But less of it this time.
Orcish Lumberjack: Not usually practical. A chump-blocker, I guess.
Volt Charge: An overcosted Lightning Bolt that makes bloodthirst even better. Don't mind if I do.
Prey Upon: My monsters are probably bigger than most of the heroes. They are monsters, after all.
Shower of Sparks: Synergizes with bloodthirst.
Terrifying Presence. Mostly it ends up buying me some time. It's not a terrible combat trick and can also be a sort of countermeasure to opposing combat tricks.
Well, that's my take on Heroes vs. Monsters. Even though such straightforward, creature-based decks aren't my focus in Magic, I'm pleased with the overall design here. The decks are fun and are well-balanced against each other. I initially expected that one deck would have enough of an edge that over the course of 50 games the advantage would show, but obviously that didn't happen. The other Duel Decks I have look like they have more to offer for combo-minded players, so I look forward to trying them out.