Retrospective Reviews: Duel Decks

Ciel Collins • July 7, 2023

Retrospective Reviews: Duel Decks

There's no time like the present to dig up the past: it's time for another Retrospective Review! My original line of interrogation was focused on the Commander products, which started back in 2011. What's interesting to me is that Commander pre-constructed decks were intended as a one-off, but obviously exceeded expectations and became a mainstay (to say the least).

With this part of the Retrospective Reviews series, I want to look over other products that WotC obviously intended as a long-running series but ultimately ended. The cold truth of why any product series ends is that it doesn't sell well enough to justify the expenditure, but I want to cut in a little deeper and examine why.

What's the Product?

Starting in 2007, the Duel Decks series was a single box (MSRP $19.99) that would contain two 60-card decks intended to be opened, shuffled, and played against one another. For 2007 and 2008, WotC only released one set of Duel Decks per year, but they moved to two releases until the final product released in 2018. Out of the 21 releases, only five of them had a set of decks that overlapped, colorwise. All of the decks relied on a strong flavor theming.

Duel Decks alternated between two "styles" of Duel Decks. The first would be a generalized "faction"-based set, such as Goblins vs. Elves or Knights vs. Dragons. The second style were centered around two planeswalkers that were, at the time of release, usually in some sort of conflict with each other, such as Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas or Elspeth vs. Tezzeret. All of the decks would feature a specific alternate art for a small number of the cards, usually printed in foil.

One tweak to the product came in 2011's Venser vs. Koth, wherein the Duel Decks actually contained some cards from the upcoming set, Contagion Clasp and Kemba's Skyguard, which wouldn't officially be released for another month. This trend continued up through 2017, with Blessed vs. Cursed allowing players to try out Mindwrack Demon almost two months early. The most "exciting" preview was Polukranos, World Eater, a card that actually saw Standard play on release.

What Releases Were There?

I'm going to do a quick run-through of the releases and anything highly relevant or notable about them, along with what the singles are currently collectively worth.

Elves vs. Goblins (2007)

The original Duel Deck, using incredibly familiar and popular creature types. Notable reprints included Elvish Harbinger, Wirewood Lodge, and Wirewood Symbiote.

Modern singles value: $45.

Jace vs. Chandra (2008)

The first planeswalker-themed Duel Deck, this one had the quirk of a Japanese version with unique, anime arts for Jace and Chandra. Those particular versions are worth a nice amount ($20-30), but the English versions are not. Notable reprints included Ancestral Vision and Counterspell.

Modern singles value: $28.

Divine vs. Demonic (2009)

Angels and Demons are literally iconic, so it's no surprise that they saw a set so early on. Notable reprints here included Demonic Tutor, which is worth twice as much as the other 119 cards in the box, and mega-classic Akroma, Angel of Wrath.

Modern singles value: $64

Garruk vs. Liliana (2009)

This deck signified to the masses a lengthy conflict in the lore that still technically hasn't been brought to a stand-off or conclusion. (Garruk has been cured, of course, but I do feel he and Liliana will have words eventually, if only over their mutual charges: Will and Rowan). Notable reprints here included Snuff Out, Liliana Vess, and Garruk Wildspeaker. Thanks to being a new, flashy card type, planeswalkers held value back then.

Total singles value: $35

Phyrexia vs. The Coalition (2010)

This set of Duel Decks caused massive controversy at the time, as Phyrexian Negator was actually part of the Reserved List. Wizards of the Coast had initially included a loophole allowing for "premium" versions to be printed later on, but the backlash apparently caused them to close that part of the agreement. Even with that legacy in it, this deck had three more desirable reprints inside it: Lightning Greaves, Phyrexian Arena, and Living Death.

Total singles value: $45

Elspeth vs. Tezzeret (2010)

The third planeswalker Duel Deck set featured the opening note of Shards of Alara block, in which Elspeth, Knight-Errant of Bant clashed with the vicious Tezzeret the Seeker of Esper. Aside from the respective planeswalkers, notable reprints included Journey to Nowhere and Swords to Plowshares.

Total singles value: $50

Knights vs. Dragons (2011)

This set tied into the second part of Shards of Alara and signified the sort of struggle going between the Knights of Bant and the fierce Dragons of Jund, heavily supported by cards outside of the block itself, as Knights and Dragons are immensely resonant creature types. Kinsbaile Cavalier recently rocketed (thanks, Sidar Jabari of Zhalfir). Knight of the Reliquary may have dropped in price over time, but that art is still incredible stuff.

Total singles value: $59

Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas (2011)

Representing the epic showdown between Ajani Vengeant of Naya and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and the conclusion of the Alara block, this deck's other noteworthy inclusions would be Essence Warden, Titanic Ultimatum, and Cruel Ultimatum.

Total singles value: $35

Venser vs. Koth (2012)

This is a weird one, because the planeswalkers involved here didn't actually fight. We'll note this for later, as it demonstrates the on-going challenges of Duel Decks as a concept. Aside from noted allies [/el]Venser, the Sojourner[/el] and Koth of the Hammer, the valuable cards here were Anger and a gripping Path to Exile.

Total singles value: $40

Izzet vs. Golgari (2012)

The spellslinging Izzet guild takes on the graveyard-dredging Golgari! Isochron Scepter versus Life from the Loam! Fun stuff.

Total singles value: $55

Sorin vs. Tibalt (2013)

Once again there's a flavor mismatch going on, but it was a problem of the on-going story at the time. Big bad Sorin, Lord of Innistrad is set up by the trailers to be dealing with a plane in crisis, but ends up... kicking Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded around for a bit while Liliana accidentally solves his problem for him?

Total singles value: $25

Thanks, comedy king. Rest in pieces at the bottom of New Phyrexia.

Heroes vs. Monsters (2013)

Although its face cards, Sun Titan and Polukranos, World Eater, have amazing art, it's somewhat telling of the quality of the deck that the fourth and fifth most expensive cards in the deck are basic lands.

Total singles value: $22

Jace vs. Vraska (2014)

This year's planeswalker-themed duel deck would also pit one of the Lorwyn Five against a green-aligned, ruthless killer, but unlike Garruk v. Liliana, this one got an incredibly satisfying pirate-themed romance to conclude their early aggression. Night's Whisper versus [/el]Remand[/el] is the real theme of the deck; grindy value versus steadfast control. This deck was, I believe, the first set to get a miniature version! Adorable.

Total singles value: $25.

Speed vs. Cunning (2014)

This theming is probably the most... loose of all the Duel Decks, but showed a real difficulty that kept growing over time. Intended to show off the upcoming Khans, this deck pitted Zurgo Helmsmasher against Arcanis the Omnipotent. The real stars of the deck would be Krenko, Mob Boss and Goblin Bombardment. Weirdest facet of the Duel Deck is that it would be the only one where the decks shared two colors: red and white!

Total singles value: $30

Elspeth vs. Kiora (2015)

This got close to the Venser vs. Koth problem, but at least Kiora, the Crashing Wave and Elspeth, Sun's Champion had some animosity towards each other during their meeting in the original Theros block. Mother of Runes makes a welcome appearance, but the fourth-most expensive "card" here was a Kraken token.

Total singles value: $26

Zendikar vs. Eldrazi (2015)

An early preview of the upcoming Battle For Zendikar, with Eldrazi routinely crushing in the experience my friends and I had with it. Welcome reprints included It That Betrays, Avenger of Zendikar, and Eldrazi Temple.

Total singles value: $50

Blessed vs. Cursed (2016)

Representing the soon-to-come struggle of Innistrad's Humans against the perils of the night with Geist of Saint Traft as a cool, bling version of the popular-at-the-time commander. Nowadays, its most desired cards are Eerie Interlude, Gravecrawler, and... Tandem Lookout? Huh.

Total singles value: $27

Nissa vs. Ob Nixilis (2016)

This final planeswalker-themed Duel Deck capped off alright with then-superstar Nissa, Voice of Zendikar against future mobster Ob Nixilis Reignited, both with matching Raymond Swanland art (an excellent choice). Other spicy inclusions were Crop Rotation and Desecration Demon.

Total singles value: $24

Mind vs. Might (2017)

The tendrils of Commander's influence and increasingly popularity can be felt here, where the face of both decks is a legendary creature. Over half of Might's value came from Coat of Arms alone, though Zo-Zu the Punisher has a respectable amount of desirability. I'll respect Mind for giving newer players the opportunity to storm off or summon up The Unspeakable.

Total singles value: $49

Merfolk vs. Goblins (2017)

One of the original Duel Deck featured teams, Goblins, makes a triumphant return in this two-part send-off. They even brought in an actual "enemy" faction to do it! Warren Instigator got fantastic new art here and flavor text to go along with his good buddy Goblin Rabblemaster. Krenko, Mob Boss gets the distinction of a second Duel Deck printing here! Master of the Pearl Trident is also here.

Total singles value: $48

Elves vs. Inventors (2018)

In the final Duel Deck, the other half of the original duel, Elves, return to fight with... Inventors! Inventors having Goblin Welder as the face was welcome but really made this feel like the original, instead of its own thing. This would be the first and only Duel Deck to be made after Dominaria (2018) introduced the legendary crown, which worked out great for Ezuri, Renegade Leader. The inclusion of Darksteel Plate and Regal Force were also appreciated.

Total singles value: $60

What Were Some Flaws in the Product?

Well, it was intended to be an out-of-the-box pair of decks that were relatively evenly matched and provided quite a few games that were fun and exciting. That's... a surprisingly tall ask. Let's break it down by the features it tried to offer.

First, the play experience itself. Duel Decks could be balanced well, but tended to be mismatched at least a little. The borderline-single construction of the decks meant that these games were also very swingy. If the 2018 Merfolk deck lands its Master of Waves, its opposing Goblins deck only had one card in the deck that could directly answer it. But even if they were matched nicely... what then? Maybe the owner plays with them on Friday nights for a few weeks before forgetting about them.

The second feature to talk about was the ability to buy a product with a guaranteed planeswalker in it. This was incredibly exciting back in 2009, as the planeswalker card type was exclusively reserved for Mythic Rare (aside from Lorwyn, when Mythic Rarity wasn't a thing), and casual players had no idea that it even existed. Since then, we've had War of the Spark and planeswalkers in Commander decks. Another note is that the planeswalker variants struggled to match up a pair of planeswalkers in an actual conflict, which messed with the flavor of some of the Duel Decks.

The third feature of note were the bonus "preview" cards. These would be released a month or two earlier than the rest of the set and allow for players to try them out. This is neat, but doesn't do anything for the long-term viability of the product. It also didn't add a real value for most players that basic previews didn't already accomplish, as a few cards are always previewed a few months earlier than the rest.

Finally, these were intended as a flavorful representation of a conflict; this was intrinsic to the product! Magic: the Gathering is inherently a game about conflict, but not every setting has clear, divided lines like the Duel Decks line wanted. Many settings have more than two factions, which means that the product can't capture all of them. Sure, the two Commander decks that are tied to three sets a year can't capture everything going on in the set either, but they have a better chance than these did.

What Happened?

So, eleven long years and then the product line was shut down. Why?

The simple version is that I believe the audience had grown beyond one that was satisfied with the Duel Decks product, and the company had grown large enough to be able to serve them better.

Duel Decks weren't quite singleton but got close, a product design intended to produce higher variance and ensure that the product had a higher replayability by way of distinct experiences. These decks had very few high-value cards, if any. They were clearly targeted at new players, but did generally include a few reprints that more experienced players might be excited to pick up. For an out-of-the-box duel set, Wizards of the Coast has shifted towards Starter Kits, which are intentionally low-value but maximized for teaching newer players what to do. This product is laser-targeted at a singular audience, one wanting to get into the greater Magic: the Gathering ecosystem.

picture of Magic: Starter Kit, introductory 2022 Magic product

Duel Decks also really wanted to be flavorful and tie into the on-going premiere products. That allowed them a longer purpose: act as a fun, casual deck that could be upgraded. This sounds familiar! Commander became the most popular casual format aside from "Cards I Own", so Duel Decks just didn't have a place there.

My verdict? Duel Decks were doing two things poorly, and other products were able to take those objectives and do them better. The product did a great job of demonstrating the fun, flavorful stories which could be told in a game of Magic, but the format and playerbase grew enough that better products became necessary.

The Duel is Over!

So, there we have it! The history of Duel Decks, and some speculation as to their eventual demise. A fun, flavorful product that eventually became too "middle of the road" to keep going on as it was.

Now, I know that they were ultimately a discontinue-worthy product, but the core idea is fabulous. Have any of you built any Duel Deck sets of your own? Show me lists if you have, and what your experiences were like!

Is there a discontinued Magic product you think has an interesting story to tell or a nagging question about its demise that you want me to talk about? Let me know in the comments below!

Ciel got into Magic as a way to flirt with a girl in college and into Commander at their bachelor party. They’re a Vorthos and Timmy who is still waiting for an official Theros Beyond Death story release. In the meantime, Ciel obsesses over Commander precons, deck biomes, and deckbuilding practices. Naya forever.