Magical Hack: Kamigawa Block, The Early Weeks
The first few weeks of a Block Constructed PTQ season are usually very interesting to watch, especially as the cards from the third set start to permeate the decks from the Pro Tour prior to the third expansion. This time around, we have progressed quite a bit on some of our archetypes of old, with at least one new "good deck" coming out of the mix thanks to the Saviors of Kamigawa cards. The first new deck is "Black Hand," the black weenie beatdown with fattie back-up deck that is sporting such Saviors hits as O-Naginata, Hand of Cruelty, and Raving Oni-Slave. More changes to the Pro Tour stable of decks are of course very likely, and will be discussed in at least some detail here, but this is the first glaringly obvious difference:
- 3 Hand of Cruelty
- 4 Ogre Marauder
- 4 Raving Oni-Slave
- 3 scourge of numai
- 4 Takenuma Bleeder
- 1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
- 4 Yukora, the Prisoner
The mana curve seems a little bit clunky, and playing one Land too few to reasonably justify four Yukora as a main component of the strategy. And let's not even get into the fact that some of these cards probably don't belong in the deck, like Death Denied. One of the mass sweepers of choice you aren't worried about, because Hideous Laughter doesn't break you, and the other doesn't put your creatures anywhere you'll be able to get them back from with Death Denied. This makes it a "reload" card for when a similar matchup has come along... but frankly, when you're trying to reload against another aggro deck that is trading creatures with you one for one while also getting in some Trample damage with O-Naginata, you don't have this kind of time.
The deck really seems like it is trying to resolve one key internal choice: O-Naginata or No? Without O-Naginata, you can afford to run more creatures with less than three power, and thus more two drops that are actual, y'know, creatures. This includes the full four Hands of Cruelty, and likely a full four Nezumi Cutthroat as well, since they are the second creature that can wear a Jitte and battle past a clogged White Weenie board. With O-Naginata, you have to play more three-drops that can wear it (including the powerful but fragile Ogre Marauder), and make sure that you're not suddenly too clunky with your mana costs and equip costs to actually be useful.
Option the first:
Option the second
What can I say? I'm not sold on 4/4s for four being better than lower-cost creatures in this deck, even if it is a necessary evil in the O-Naginata deck just as a space-filler that can wear the big trampling Equipment. Hand of Cruelty is too good not to run four copies right now, with White Weenie being one of the most populous "good" decks around. Distress helps win Jitte wars, and as all dumb creature decks know when they bash their animals into each other, Jitte wars are not something you want to lose... and it's not bad at breaking up whatever it is your other opponents are trying to do, either.
I don't see why a deck like this wouldn't play Sickening Shoal, sacrificing long-term potential for an attack phase right now - especially since it never hurts to have something to do with a second copy of Yukora. Sickening Shoal also helps break up the famous "turn 4 Jitte plus equip" play that so many decks try and accomplish.... And which still can't be good for this deck even if its creatures are generally resistant to "just" one attack with the Jitte.
Look for this deck to be a mainstay of the metagame, in whichever more developed form it evolves into as the numbers stabilize from Week One onward.
White Weenie is still a major contender, and is likely to keep making Top Eights as one of the best decks in the format, even if it doesn't change much from the Pro Tour: Philadelphia version that was prevalent. At Pro Tour: Philadelphia, the White Weenie deck that made Top Eight did so despite numerous play errors (or (or so I'm told by several friends who had the pleasure of being spectators at the event), such as manaburning to death, and protecting from the wrong color thanks to Splice confusion on the part of its wielder, which can perhaps attest to the sheer power of its beatdown.
- 4 Kami of Ancient Law
- 4 Lantern Kami
- 4 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
- 4 Tallowisp
- 4 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails
- 3 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
I'm of the opinion that the metagame is shifting away from Indomitable Will being actually useful. Hideous Laughter is still around, but it's now paired with either Final Judgment or Kagemaro, First to Suffer, and it's less relevant against most other creature decks anyway. Planting one of these on your creature doesn't seem as relevant to the mirror match as either Shining Shoal or Blessed Breath, and going down to one as a tutor-target for Tallowisp is probably just fine.
Adding another key creature, that being Celestial Kirin, to the mix can have very interesting results: it dominates the mirror match entirely, letting Tallowisp and Kami of Ancient Law destroy everything of actual relevance, and can do similar against other weenie decks. You can even scale the effect with Shining Shoal, being an X-cost Arcane spell, to pick off whatever costs two or more and needs to die. Shining Shoal is likewise quite incredibly good, being both a zero-mana combat trick you can use to clear opposing attackers during creature combat and the White equivalent of a Fireball.
I would suggest the following:
- 4 Kami of Ancient Law
- 4 Lantern Kami
- 4 Samurai of the Pale Curtain
- 4 Tallowisp
- 2 Celestial Kirin
- 4 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails
- 2 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
The Celestial Kirin plan is for the mirror match, and Otherworldly Journey helps out there as both a trick and a two-mana Kirin trigger that will sweep everything up and toss it along. I think Samurai of the Pale Curtain is still more important than Hand of Honor in the maindeck, as the Splice-lock deck is very good, and you need to have something that gives them trouble if you don't have Hokori in the main. Otherworldly Journey is a kick in the junk against Raving Oni-Slave, and not so bad against Yukora the Prisoner (it helps kill Hand of Honor that way), in addition to being good for dodging global removal like Final Judgment.
Having discussed White and Black weenie decks, then, we can leave 1995 behind and jump in the time machine back to 2005, where decks are more complex than mono-colored beatdown decks.
Last week, I posted a deck that I intended to play at a weekend PTQ, without much of an explanation besides "I thought it was good". Much of my thinking backed itself up in trial by fire, and I went 5-1 with Sway of the Snakes, finishing 15th. I had been a late entrant to the tournament, joining because I had thought I'd be able to do so with some option other than automatically taking a loss, so I didn't get to play my seventh round, because everyone else's seventh round was only my sixth.
I went 2-1 against White Weenie, 1-0 against Black Hand, and 1-0 against two more enterprising deckbuilders: The first was a Reanimator-style deck using Gifts Ungiven to set up Through the Breach and Goryo's Vengeance on a variety of exceptional creatures - just not Iname, All As One. The second was a Green-White Control deck several players from there were sporting, and which was doing quite well with two players in Top Eight contention, neither of whom made it past round seven. Fifty-minute rounds were not their friend; I won the first game against them in about thirty minutes, and pulled out the second on turn five of extra turns with the "techy" (or perhaps "trashy") solo Undying Flames out of my sideboard.
- 4 Orochi Leafcaller
- 4 Orochi Sustainer
- 4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Adamaro, First to Desire
- 1 Godo, Bandit Warlord
- 1 Kodama of the North Tree
- 1 Kumano, Master Yamabushi
- 1 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
- 4 Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro
- 1 Seshiro the Anointed
- 1 Sosuke, Son of Seshiro
The main advantage to this deck is its explosive mana combined with good mid-game beatdown ability, letting you take full advantage of the expensive Legends tutored for as appropriate with Time of Need. Snakes is a difficult deck to categorize as a true "beatdown" deck - especially since every creature in it that costs less than three mana has just one power - but its tempo always seems to categorize it as the aggressive deck against anything slower than a true dedicated beatdown deck. It makes sacrifices (sixteen creatures that produce mana) to get back power and synergy, and takes advantage of that mana in an impressive fashion.
- Turn 1, Forest, Orochi Leafcaller.
- Turn 2, Forest, Sakura-Tribe Elder; attack for one, sacrifice Elder at end of turn for a Mountain. (19)
- Turn 3, miscellaneous Land, Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro; tap Leafcaller to cast Time of Need for Godo, Bandit Warlord.
- Turn 4, miscellaneous Land, tap Leafcaller and four Lands to cast Godo, searching out Tatsumatsa, the Dragon's Fang; attack for one with Sachi. (18)
- Turn 5, equip Tatsumatsa to Godo, attack with Godo, Sachi, and Leafcaller, untapping Godo to attack again. (8) Attack opponent a second time. (0)
And this isn't the most impressive feat the deck can perform, by far. I would still love this deck quite a bit if it didn't have Sway of the Stars, because of the sheer power you get adding a suite of some of the best Legends to the mana engine of the Snake deck, but it wouldn't be the same. Sway of the Stars can get you out of any problematic situation for the surprisingly affordable cost of ten mana, puts control decks well within range of falling to your early beatdown (as unimpressive as it is), and is a "balanced" card whose parity is broken by your ability to spend mana from the same turn during the "sub-game" that it creates.
A more conservative spellcaster can pull out the Sways and take the combo out of the deck, especially since less than half of my wins with the deck involve Swaying (or even considering Swaying). When working with the Snake deck, keep in mind the powerful mana that the Snake tribe lets you play with before deciding not to exploit that advantage in some fashion, even if it's the more consistently devastating (and far easier to cast) Thoughts of Ruin.
Now, I know you're curious, because everyone sees it and asks, "Why the one random Undying Flames?" The answer is a simple one, and even a bit elegant (to steal from Rosewater again). There are control decks that will try and negate your threats both in play and in your hand or deck through Ethereal Haze or Cranial Extraction lockdown. This is a card that breaks past such lockdowns and that can end the game by itself, warranting a Cranial Extraction all to itself. Not bad for one sideboard card, especially since it opens up a fair bit of potential wiggle room that can give your opponent the sweats, or just outright kills them.
The rest of the sideboard makes sense: the missing Jittes and some copies of Wear Away for the Jitte-bearing beatdown decks, to fight them on their own terms. Cranial Extraction and Hero's Demise seem fairly self-explanatory, and the one Shizuko is to search up against White decks that can't take advantage of the mana but that try to lock you under Hokori.
Even if you don't take most of the deck to heart, it's explosive and facilitates the full set of Time of Needs to break the game open with its powerful Legends, being both more powerful and more consistent because of it. I've seen a lot of Snake decks with less than four copies of Time of Need, and frankly they're wrong not to squeeze it in somehow. Don't get too attached to the Divining Tops in this deck, because this is not one of those decks that shuffle constantly and live or die based on whether they can abuse the Top. It just wants to cash it in for a good card, shuffle it away, and proceed on with the rest of its plans. If all it's doing is trading for a good card, there's an argument that can be made for just putting in two more copies of Umezawa's Jitte.... but against the controlling decks in the format, Jitte doesn't do so very much and game one against the beatdown decks is still pretty good.
So, we've looked at green-based beatdown, white-based beatdown, and black-based beatdown. There is no such thing as blue beatdown - though you can fudge it apparently by equipping Umezawa's Jitte to Jushi Apprentice, who for that purpose may as well be a Zubera. Green-based beatdown could look like Black-based beatdown, taking advantage of O-Naginata, but it doesn't get the crucial two-mana creature with three power that Black got for that same attempt - and so Snakes it is for the key route to Green beatdown, which of course includes other colors as well.
Red beatdown can be quite dangerous, though, as it complements its aggressive creatures with burn. Red beatdown gets Hearth Kami to deal with the recent influx of equipment, and clearly got the best Genju for people who like to attack. It can work with a lot of different routes, going anywhere from the burn-heavy route (Hitsedegu's Second Rite) to doing something stupid (Blazing Shoal, removing Myojin of Infinite Rage), or getting wacky with O-Naginata (Akki Avalanchers, anyone?).
We've got some worthy beatdown creatures to look at, cutting us off at three mana except for considering Yuki-Onna (Jitte-killer) and Godo, Bandit Warlord (Jitte Tutor) as possible additions. The two-drop options are pretty thin, and I'd run with four each of Hearth Kami and Akki Underling there - the Kami for obvious reasons and the Underling because half of the games you play, you'll have to draw first, and this can provide an extra two damage for free in those games. Frostling, Goblin Cohorts, and Genju of the Spires are all worth considering as one-drops, and for three-drops we have Adamaro, Zo-Zu, the Brothers Yamazaki (if unlikely), Shinka Gatekeeper, Ronin Houndmaster, and Cunning Bandit all vying for the same space.
The mana curve takes advantage of a fairly normal beatdown start, and the creatures all have some sort of bonus attached to them that helps advance the strategy of beating down.
Frostling is the imitation Mogg Fanatic, and even a poor imitation of a Mogg Fanatic is still pretty good, Hearth Kami and Yuki-Onna both destroy artifacts and help fight the Jitte war. All three count as Spirits for flipping a Cunning Bandit, which can get creatures out of the way for the fatal attack to get through, and conveniently upgrades to a five-power attacker while doing so. Zo-Zu the Punisher makes life difficult for the decks that like to play a lot of lands, that being most of them. Akki Underling gets extra damage across when you're drawing first, which should help close the deal faster and make up something of the difference for that initial slowdown. Genju of the Spires can get a lot of damage through cheaply if it goes unblocked, and is very difficult to actually kill for most decks. Jitte is as Jitte does, while Lava Spike and Glacial Ray combine nicely as extra burn for finishing the game with, or perhaps Splicing the Rays to kill additional two-toughness creatures.
There's plenty of danger here, which means something worth respecting and working on, and I would not be surprised to see a break-out performance now that people consider playing 3/3s that can eat up to six of your life on turn 2 a "good" play.
Seeing this deck (and having read a lot of articles about Red Deck Wins in Extended) it makes me wonder why it was we didn't see a Wasteland revisitation in any of the three Kamigawa sets; perhaps instead of the never-to-be-used Gods' Eye, Gate to the Reikai, we could have seen something simple and limited in use that would make the decision to play the special lands of this block an actual decision rather than just a free bonus.
Wasteland of Kamigawa
Tap: Add (1) to your mana pool.
Tap, sacrifice Wasteland of Kamigawa: Destroy target Legendary land.
"Iwamori, isn't there supposed to be a school around here somewhere?"
"Sorry, Master Konda, I sneezed."
- Iwamori of the Open Fist
Having peeked at the beatdown decks, I'll be leaving the controllish decks for next week, when I open a can of worms or two on Kagemaro, First to Suffer and what he means to the control decks that used to play Final Judgment instead... as this control card presents the biggest conundrum to the composition and interplay of the various control decks, and gives the Splice deck a way of winning the match in a fifty-minute timed round.
"I try to see it in reverse
It makes the situation hundreds of times worse
When I wonder if it makes you want to cry
Every time you see a light blue Volvo driving by"
- The Dresden Dolls, "The Jeep Song"