Over the past several years, as the columnist behind first Swimming with Sharks, and now Top Decks, I have had the privilege of previewing some of the finest, most exciting tournament cards in essentially every set. I have gotten to share Cryptic Command and Lightning Helix; two-drops like Lotus Cobra and Fauna Shaman and big 'walkers like Koth of the Hammer. And especially as the guy who got to spoil that four-mana red planeswalker, it is without reservation that I say that Chandra, the Firebrand is one of the most spectacularly interesting and wheels-turning four-mana possibilities I have ever had the opportunity to preview.
How can we celebrate her impending majesty?
Here are ten talky-talking points.
- 1. TPIR, a.k.a. The Sweet Spot
A few months ago, people were talking about Gideon Jura as part of a one-two "unbeatable combo" in Standard (along with another Planeswalker who shall remain nameless). But when push came to shove and curves got low, Gideon got benched from the sixties and started collecting dust in the long boxes, with white-blue creature control falling on faster options like Oust and Condemn.
Sorin Markov is frankly awesome; but besides being Bella Flores's favorite planeswalker and offering a helping hand in one of Conley Woods's more memorable Extended decks, he hasn't seen a huge amount of serious play.
The fact is, with one glaring exception (that happens to be the one and only three-mana planeswalker), each and every serious-impact planeswalker—certainly every planeswalker that has challenged for the "best in class" title in Standard—has been four mana. Ajani Goldmane in White-Black Tokens... four mana. Ajani Vengeant in Naya Lightsaber (and a fair number of other decks)... four mana. Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas in both the Artifact Grixis and Poison decks... four mana. Jace, the Mind Sculptor in allegedly every viable deck (like I have to remind you)... four mana.
The fact is, Chandra, the Firebrand is simply priced right.
Welcome to the club, kid.
- 2. Ha Ha, Dead Elf
"One piece of advice which aspiring players are often given is that they should learn to play the 'best deck,' rather than always playing your favorite deck or a version of the one that you used to play. This is fine by me, because by some amazing coincidence my testing always reveals that the Red Deck is the best deck."
Back in the day, Dan Paskins and his Red Deck Wins cohorts used to play a "Kill Elf" sub-tournament whereby participants would get a point for each Elf they killed over the course of the entire (main) tournament. The inaugural winner was all-time great Svend Geertsen, though Paskins himself to this day holds the "All Elves Must Die" single-day record at 57.
Herself ever a fan of red decks and having a good time, Chandra, the Firebrand is ready-built to help you win your next game of "Kill Elf":
You'll notice that this ability is exactly the same as the +1 ability on the classic Chandra Nalaar... but instead of just scratching your opponent, you can also murder all manner of Arbor Elves, Llanowar Elves, and so on to pad your Elf-killing record.
- 3. Phoenix, Meet Mommy
In case you haven't seen it yet, Chandra has a new rare creature under her proverbial (flaming) wing in M12, Chandra's Phoenix:
Pretty cool, right?
Kind of like a Suq'Ata Lancer that doesn't actually need flanking because it is going over the top... Oh yeah, and can't die permanently.
Chandra's Phoenix is probably an auto-include four-of in many decks, though in terms of raw power it just seems like a well above average, but still pretty fair spell. That is, you don't get the Arcbound Ravager or Memory Jar feeling around it. It's just good.
Chandra's Phoenix | Illustration by Aleksi Briclot
Chandra's Phoenix happens to be really good when mama Chandra is around.
Unlike Koth (who uses Mountain damage instead of doing it himself), Chandra, the Firebrand can activate Chandra's Phoenix. Actually, any version of Chandra can re-buy Chandra's Phoenix, but Chandra, the Firebrand does so most flexibly.
Rememember Ha Ha, Dead Elf?
That +1 ability gives you more than one way to pick up free card advantage!
- 4. The Middle
The only thing middling about Chandra's second ability is, well, its position on the card:
You are going to have some impulse ideas about how you can use this ability.
"Ooh... a six-damage Lightning Bolt!"
I would encourage you to think a bit bigger on this.
How about a ten-damage Goblin Grenade?
... Or at least two different five-damage packages?
There is no reason to think so small!
Double Destructive Force?
Might just be a plan! I mean, probably not... but that is the kind of thing that seems worth considering to me. Doubling stuff in Magic can be legitimately big, and in the case of Chandra, the Firebrand, more expansive than might seem immediately obvious.
Here is a crazy thought: There is only one red mana symbol on Chandra's upper-right hand corner. Why should she be limited to red decks? Why not get a serious dig on with double Preordain? What about double Tezzeret's Gambit? You don't even have to leave red! Pay 2 life, draw four cards, and proliferate the counters right back onto Chandra, the Firebrand?
Might be good, might not be... But stuff like that is possible with this card. Yes, yes, your first thought of a six damage Lightning Bolt probably is the best (or at least most common / consistent) thing you can plan to do with Chandra; but that doesn't mean it is the only thing.
- 5. The Upgrade
Let's compare this a moment to Chandra Nalaar and her Ultimate ability...
Chandra, the Firebrand actually needs to activate her (strictly superior) +1 ability three times to set up her -6 ability. This might initially seem inferior to Chandra Nalaar, who needs only two +1 activations before getting ready for "ultimate" conflict.
... but since Chandra, the Firebrand costs one less mana, it's basically a wash.
Yes, yes, Chandra Nalaar had (probably) the better Ultimate, but Chandra, the Firebrand's 6 damage is actually potentially more versatile, and just plenty powerful enough, anyway!
- 6. Koth or Chandra?
Now here is the real question! This might sound heretical in light of last week's bannings, but Koth of the Hammer might actually have been the mightiest four-mana planeswalker printed so far; the difference between Koth and Jace is that Jace could go into Caw-Blade, Blue-Red-Green, and a half a dozen other decks... whereas Koth could go only into a deck with ample Mountains.
You will see that Chandra has no such limitations. Her cost is easier on a mana base than Ajani Vengeant's, and that Ajani spent good time not only in Naya beatdown decks but in plenty of control-style decks, and even helped Osyp Lebedowicz win an Extended PTQ out of the Astral Slide sideboard!
There is no question that there will be some competition between the two cards; they are both red planeswalkers and both cost four mana. Koth is intense, best suited to a mono-red deck, and has the word "Mountains" tattooed all over him.
Chandra is great in a red deck, but also capable of branching out into blue decks, or contributing in goodness knows how many different strategies that can tap four for a planeswalker!
- 7. Koth and Chandra
You want to have your mind completely blown?
Turn four Koth of the Hammer, add with Koth's second ability: Chandra, the Firebrand.
Remember what I said before about getting back to double Destructive Force? How crazy are the possibilities with a deck that could do that and help ramp up to Karn, Liberated?
Why shouldn't there be a Mono-Red Planeswalker control deck?
- 8. That Great Big Middle
Remember what I already said (twice) about double Destructive Force?
Just wanna make sure you didn't stop paying attention or something!
- 9. The Endless Possibilities
Chandra, the Firebrand is the kind of planeswalker that can go into both the obvious deck, but also be splashed into almost any other strategy. It might be the case that Blue-Red Control with this card will be one of the best decks, simply "splashing" Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin as a valuable add-on rather than being a combo-central strategy.
It might be that Red-White-Blue Planeswalkers returns as an archetype, with Jace Beleren picking up the pieces as best he can with no Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but with Elf-slaying Chandra, the Firebrand quickly stepping up to Ajani Vengeant's former spot.
But why stop there?
I went to Red-White-Blue Planewalkers because last year there was already a deck like that and I snapped straight to it, and Chandra, the Firebrand seemed like she could fit. But you know what's cool about endless possibilities and the potential to make a serious impact across tons of different lines?
Dear Jonny: You don't have to go straight to the most obvious deck.
There is little question in my mind that the more common places we see this Chandra in the upcoming months will be next to a lot of Mountains, maybe some Goblins. But I would be surprised if we didn't commonly see her in different, still-cool situations.
- 10. The King is Dead, Long Live the Queen!
What made Jace, the Mind Sculptor so ban-ably great?
Have you ever asked yourself that question, or just resigned yourself to a submission to his being better than all?
Jace wasn't unfair in the Narcomoeba sense; he was very good, but never actually prevented you from playing Magic. In fact, he challenged you to play better Magic, and various successful players chose different routes to solving his riddles (which, admittedly, often included just playing a different, or different look at, Jace).
Yet, if we go back and look at what Jace actually did, we can learn something that can maybe be applied elsewhere.
"Fateseal" – Jace could deny you resources and grind you out with a lot of little cuts—spending no mana, mind you—while you did your actual work with the rest of your deck.
"Brainstorm" – Jace could hand you card advantage.
"Unsummon" – (I think this was my favorite of the four)... Jace could create a mana imbalance. The opponent was actually spending; you were just moving around loyalty. Again, Jace was grinding for you and freeing up your mana to do anything else with whatever else.
Ultimate – Rare that anyone would come back.
Chandra, the Firebrand has many of the Mind Sculptor's same qualities. Her +1 is obviously not as specialized as any of Jace's first three abilities, but she mixes together defense, potential mana advantage, and grinding victory condition all in that first ability. As someone who spent most of his Jace loyalty over the last term bouncing Birds of Paradise and Lotus Cobra, I have a deep appreciation for the Firebrand's improved ping. Even if it will be rare to get all 20 in, 1 point at a time, the first ability makes every other red card so good, it will often end up an accelerated version at the same.
Chandra, the Firebrand | Illustration by D. Alexander Gregory
No, Chandra can't easily keep a Phyrexian Obliterator off of you like Jace did, but her doubling second ability let's your "anything else" deal with almost everything else. In fact, your Lightning Bolts become better Titan defense than Jace's Unsummon ever was. And of course, Chandra's flashier possibilities really may prove the highlight reel.
And her last one? More people will come back than they did against Jace's last one, but it's still potentially 36 damage.
Plus, as we said over and over, like Jace, Chandra-three can be played in more places than Koth could, and contribute everywhere.
Is Chandra the new Jace? I certainly hope not! But she has many similar qualities and loads to be excited about.
... Now let's see about getting the Firebrand that crown!