Magic: the Gathering Duel Decks Review: Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas

Sorry for this review being a bit late, that whole tropical storm a few weeks ago followed by another one meant our shipment got delayed a bit here in New England, so it wasn’t until earlier that I finally picked up my Duel Decks: Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas!

The battle of Alara’s Maelstorm is in your hands. Determine the fate of an entire plane and the outcome of the an epic conflict between two rival Planeswalkers.

Suggested ages: 13 and up
Number of players: 2
Playing time: 30 minutes
Contents: 2 decks of 60 cards, two deck boxes, two inserts, two card tokens
Retail price: $19.99 and is available on Amazon and retailers everywhere

I’ve got to hand it to Wizards of the Coast, in the last few years they have really stepped up their packaging efforts. I know a big part of it is the simple fact that for products like these, they need to look bigger than the standard Magic product. While $20 may seem reasonable to most players for two 60-card decks, they suddenly look very small when taken out of the box.

Included in the set are two 60-card decks, two creature tokens, two special deck boxes and two foldout inserts that illustrate the basics of Magic from a rules standpoint, and the other talks about the story line behind these decks. Basically Nicol Bolas is still upset about the Mending and Ajani is filled with rage. It’s the storyline that played out during the Alara block, but it means each deck takes after a shard. As for the deck boxes, they’re okay but barely have enough space for the cards in the deck alone so if you want to sleeve you deck, you’ll need a new container.

All the cards in this set are marked with a new expansion symbol made up of Nicol Bolas’s horns and Ajani’s Behemoth Sledge.

The leonin Ajani Goldmane scours the shards of Alara with a single thought in mind: revenge. Filled with rage at the murder of his brother, Jazal, Ajani searches for his killer. Leaving no stone unturned, his wrath grows along with his power as a Planeswalker, leading him to an ultimate showdown with the Multiverse’s master manipulator.

Ajani Vengeant Decklist
Creatures (22)
1 Woolly Thoctar
1 Firemane Angel
1 Fleetfoot Panther
1 Loxodon Hierarch
1 Marisi’s Twinclaws
1 Spitemare
1 Qasali Pridemage
1 Kird Ape
1 Canyon Wildcat
2 Ajani’s Pridemate
1 Loam Lion
1 Nacatl Hunt-Pride
1 Wild Nacatl
1 Jade Mage
1 Ageless Entity
2 Sylvan Ranger
1 Essence Warden
1 Pride of Lions
1 Briarhorn
1 Grazing Gladehart

 

 

Enchantments (5)
1 Searing Meditation
1 Ajani’s Mantra
2 Recumbent Bliss
1 Griffin Guide

Sorceries (2)
1 Titanic Ultimatum
1 Lead the Stampede

Instants (4)
1 Naya Charm
1 Lightning Helix
2 Sylvan Bounty

 

 

Planeswalker (1)

1 Ajani Vengeant

Artifact (1)
1 Behemoth Sledge

Lands (25)
2 Evolving Wilds
1 Kazandu Refuge
1 Graypelt Refuge
2 Jungle Shrine
8 Forest
6 Plains
3 Mountain
1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
1 Sapseep Forest

As a deck, this screams out to me as a fun place to start. I’ve been a fan of Red-Green-White long before it was called Naya, so it quickly looked like fun to me. The general concept is a beat down deck with a secondary life gain aspect that helps boost your other creatures. With the exception of a few cards though, this deck is essentially a singleton so consistency isn’t its strong suit.

First, this is the first time Essence Warden has been released in the regular-frame. Her original release used the stunning Planar Chaos alternate frames, so seeing her with black fonts is a nice change, but I prefer the Planar Chaos version. Another first time in the new frame is Fleetfoot Panther, an interesting gating combat trick that hasn’t been seen in years. In an odd move, Pride of Lions also got the new frame update. I guess Ajani really likes cats.

Five rares are also included in the deck and seem to be an odd choice of Ravnica reprints for the most part. Firemane Angel provides a recursive threat for the late game, but ten mana for a 4/3 flier feels very high still. Loxodon Hierarch provides a decent life burst and a way to protect the rest of your creatures. Plus being a 4/4 for 4 makes him a decent sized body. Searing Meditation seems like a great idea, but tends to fall flat when I’ve tried out the deck.

For non-Ravnica cards, Ageless Entity puts Ajani’s Pridemate to shame with the simple fact that it gets a +1/+1 counter for each point of life gained! He’s fun and definitely makes Lightning Helix more exciting. Titanic Ultimatum is the ultimate “I win” card when it comes to creature combat. While expensive, if it resolves it usually means you won.

Three cards in Ajani’s deck got brand new art as well. Ajani Vengeant shows off the Boros-colored walker roaring in futility. The foiling process though doesn’t look as bright and crisp as I expected. It feels a bit muddled, but the glint of foil on his jewelry and eye is a nice touch. The murky background just makes me feel like the card could look better, which is a shame because Izzy usually does excellent work. As a card though, Ajani Vengeant is still one of my favorite ‘walkers.

Lightning Helix has long been one of my favorite Magic cards, so giving it new art is fine by me. The art by Raymond Swanland looks amazing with Ajani blasting a red and white helix off in a much more dynamic design than the old card. My only complaint is that only one is included in the deck!

The final piece of new art is another personal favorite of mine, Behemoth Sledge (seeing a theme here?). Designed to correspond with the art on the planeswalker card and Lightning Helix, the new sledge is much more ornate with a design of twin rams heads being shown in an empty hill pass. It looks good but doesn’t quite match the art of the other cards showing off the piece.

Nicol Bolas is beginning to feel the effects of the eons of time and knows it will take the mana of an entire plane to rejuvenate his ancient power and set his new schemes in motion. As her expertly maneuvers the pieces of his interplanar game into place, he encounters an indomitable will bent on retribution.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker Decklist
Creatures (16)
1 Fire-Field Ogre
1 Moroii
1 Jhessian Zombies
1 Dimir Cutpurse
1 Igneous Pouncer
1 Blazing Specter
2 Hellfire Mongrel
1 Slavering Nulls
1 Ogre Savant
1 Nightscape Familiar
1 Shriekmaw
1 Morgue Toad
1 Steamcore Weird
1 Brackwater Elemental
1 Surveilling Sprite

 

 

Enchantment (1)
1 Elder Mastery

Sorceries (6)
1 Rise / Fall
1 Pain / Suffering
1 Cruel Ultimatum
1 Slave of Bolas
1 Profane Command
1 Deep Analysis

Instants (7)
1 Spite / Malice
1 Recoil
1 Countersquall
1 Grixis Charm
1 Undermine
1 Agonizing Demise
1 Vapor Snag

 

 

Planeswalker (1)
1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

Artifacts (3)
1 Icy Manipulator
2 Obelisk of Grixis

Lands (26)
9 Swamp
5 Mountain
7 Island
2 Terramorphic Expanse
2 Crumbling Necropolis
1 Rupture Spire

Opposite Ajani’s Naya deck is Nicol Bolas’s Grixis control deck in the colors of blue, black and red. First off, nine cards have been printed for the first time with the new frame in this deck consisting of Deep Analysis, Blazing Specter, Undermine, Pain/Suffering, Spite/Malice, Agonizing Demise, Recoil, Morgue Toad and Nightscape Familiar. Yes, eight of those cards are originally from Invasion block!

As a deck, Nicol Bolas is driven hard to essentially do one thing: stall until it hits seven or eight mana. With both Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and Cruel Ultimatum rounding out the mana curve, this deck just wants to stall the game until it can seal it.

The mirroring of the two decks works well with both of them getting five rares and three cards with new art. Dimir Cutpurse is a decent inclusion but I would have preferred Shadowmage Infiltrator. Blazing Specter continues the quasi-disruption theme in the deck, but more importantly, I’m just excited that Wizards is using these to give older cards a new life. Undermine continues the Invasion inspiration in Bolas’s deck, which still holds up very well as a Counterspell variant.

Profane Commander can work as either a game ending spell, or a mid-game utility to do pretty much anything. While Cruel Ultimatum is devastating, there is nothing worse than sitting with it in your hand and being short one mana. It’s deadly and dangerous, but not the easiest to cast.

Like Ajani, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker has new art too. It’s hard to capture the true size of this walker. But just like Ajani again, the color scheme, gold frame and foiling process all make for a card that looks messy and muddles from a visual standpoint. The art just looks dark, while the armor he wears is reflective, giving him a cheaper looking appearance. It’s a shame, because his card is absolutely awesome.

For new art, Deep Analysis finally drops the dated look of Masticore and Cephallids in favor of Nicol Bolas looking at a shiny orb. Also Countersquall returns with art that makes me think Bolas doesn’t like lightning elementals. It’s very purple-y.

Also included in the deck are a green Saproling token and a white Griffintoken. Like the other duel decks, these tokens have a regular Magic card back which feels so wrong to me. I would have preferred if Wizards either did double-sided tokens or something so they wouldn’t be confused with regular cards. (Okay, so I accidentally shuffled them into my deck like one time…)

When playing against each other, these two decks have a decent amount of give and take. Nicol Bolas packs removal and counters to stall the game in attempt to offer an ultimatum while Ajani keeps tossing out smaller creatures to build up a life total and hope to overwhelm. Combined, they both serve as decent starting points for two different styles of decks. They probably won’t take over the kitchen table, but they aren’t designed to. These decks are built to be balanced against each other and in that regard, they work.

For a casual player who’s collection doesn’t have as much depth as they’d like for either kitchen table antics or rounding out their Commander deck, these work great. Ten rares, two mythics and a handful of useful spells means many of these cards will find a home quickly. At $20, this is a great purchase for casual players or for those of you who don’t know what to get a Magic player in their life. Besides, any specialty set that gets more Planeswalkers in the hands of players is a good thing.