The Heart of Kamigawa: The Mana and the Legends
Every block is defined by its most powerful strategies. When you try to play something else, you face a constant uphill battle. Looking at the individual pieces is the first step, and building potential decklists is the second one. This is the third step, which is bringing together the results of both my testing and numerous tournaments from Magic Online to determine what is and is not viable - and why. As usual, the few cards that are undercosted or offer extremely valuable effects are ultra important and everything else is all but irrelevant.
The most obviously undercosted card is Umezawa's Jitte. The decks in the format can be divided into those that attempt to abuse Jitte and those that don't. Note that I didn't say those that play Jitte against those that don't because there are decks that can't abuse it but play it anyway as their only reasonable way to defend against Jitte due to its Legendary status. I've been able to identify three Jitte strategies that can be supported with a straight face: White, Snakes and Red. The Red/Green deck looks good on paper and its tricks threaten to add up fast, but it has a space problem. You have to choose between putting in enough tricks to give the deck a way to break through and getting it enough creatures to survive against removal while only the otherwise out of place Kodama of the North Tree can dodge that removal. Meanwhile Jitte is still twice as good as all your Green and Red tricks, forcing you to make it your go-to strategy and making a mockery of your entire plan while taking away four badly needed slots. There are also a few other strategies out there, plus I'm sure a few I haven't seen or thought of yet, but in every case the decks seem to be moving away from mana efficiency and getting little in return.
The other side of the Jitte coin are those decks that give up Jitte because they don't have the creatures to put it on. Once you make that decision, it shapes everything else you do. The good news is that most of the other underpriced things in the format are the opposite of Jitte. They're expensive, costing five and six mana. They go by names like Kodama of the North Tree, Kokusho, the Evening Star and Meluko of the Clouded Mirror. The only wrath costs six mana as well, unless you want Myojin of Cleansing Fire, which costs even more. It is hard to argue that there are other individual creatures that can compete with those four, although Ink-Eyes can try to make it to the dance, and all of these can be searched for with Time of Need. Once you get into the five or more mana range, there is no real competition from other men. If you're going to try and win with earlier drops, you end up with one of the Jitte decks. If you try to not focus on men, your mana is going to get even more expensive. Either way, what you need is a lot of mana and you need it fast.
Only one color can give you that mana, and that means everyone not going the Jitte route needs to pack the same two cards: Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach. The other mana engines in the format are the Red one-shot act of desperation, which you would start off with the Green cards to get it going faster, and the snake mana engine that falls under the Jitte. Snakes have a lot going for them. Assuming neither of those is applicable to your plan, there is nothing to compare with Elder and Reach. The best argument I've seen for the Top is that it gets you more of both cards, especially the third turn Reach that is so vital to these strategies getting off the ground on time.
The nature of that mana shapes the rest of the format because it lets you do almost anything. You are forced to pack Green as your primary color, which gives you Kodama of the North Tree and Time of Need if you want them, and you start out with a cheap nine sources of everything else. Once you accept the need to take calculated risks with your Green mana count it becomes trivial to play two primary colors and two or even three splash colors at minimal cost. If you did anything else in the format you would struggle to even put two colors of mana on the table reliably the same way you would find it almost impossible to accelerate your mana because this block deliberately cuts off all your other avenues. When everyone has to pay for mana of every color, it's hard to not find a way to use it.
In this way, I feel we can contract the format from its wide open form to the following strategies:
Mana (all off of Reach/Elder):
Good Stuff Legends - decks based on Kokusho/Meluko/Kodama
Hondens and/or other control decks with Final Judgment
Arcane Engine (without Hana Kami - and this is the only thing that might, just might, want to try and not use the Green)
Desperate Ritual craziness
That leaves eight potential strategies, several of which have variations. If all were viable, we'd have a pretty good format. Par for a Block Pro Tour is three viable decks and a few straddles. I don't expect all eight to make it. Note that at least one deck that many mention as viable, Black Control, did not make that list. I don't see the advantage of giving up Green. By focusing on Black you are putting your faith in Black removal, which seems to me like a questionable plan, but even if it was a good one why wouldn't it be better with Green on your side? Everything Black can do you can do with Green helping out. The theory as I understand it is that you want to spend the first few turns on discard spells, which makes the Green mana acceleration not fit in your curve and Distress in particular makes it hard to play green. I can't see the sacrifice of power this involves being viable in block. Past mono-Black decks that have worked in block have involved massive rewards for giving up other colors. Genju of the Fens, Hideous Laughter and Distress are not exactly Mind Sludge, Mutilate and Cabal Coffers. If everything is going to cost what it is worth, playing control without the mana acceleration, good card drawing or good ways to use the Top is a ticket to disaster. Making things even worse is your total inability to provide good answers to the best creatures in the format. All of them will naturally prove frustrating. I'm going to count it out until someone convinces me otherwise.
All right, that makes eight strategies. Looking to narrow that to seven or six, the eye turns to Desperate Ritual. Is this a phantom? The rewards for spending six mana are many, the rewards for spending eight are not. Myojin of Cleansing Fire can't make up for losing all your lands. There's only one creature and one spell that fit that description: Myojin of Infinite Rage and Sway of the Stars. Without any counters to stop you it may look like you have an opening, but this needs to be reliable. So far I haven't been able to come up with a list that can pull anything like this off faster than other strategies can lock or flat out kill you.
If there is one strategy that has already been tackled by the community at large it would be WW. Not only has a solid list been published, but a good article was written in the decks' defense. The list is a tiny bit imprecise, but it gets all the big questions right. I've spent a good chunk of my time in the format exploring this deck, and that's what I want to take the second half of this article exploring.
Interlude: Magic Online and the quest for the Magic playset
Call this what you will, but I need cards for Magic Online. To be precise I need four playsets of Betrayers of Kamigawa. I'm not asking for donations (not that I would refuse or fail to appreciate them) but I am hoping there's someone out there who wants to help make this easy. Ted did a great job lining up a source for Champions, but came up empty for Betrayers so I'm throwing it open to the public. Please quote me a price, payable by check, for four copies of every Betrayers card. I'll entertain offers for individual sets (in case I can add them to get four) but otherwise that's it; e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will accept the best sane offer I receive this week if I get at least one. Feel free to also quote me prices on the sets from Mirrodin block for future reference in case I decide to acquire them, but I will not be doing so right now.
1 Eiganjo Castle
This is the original list that has been winning events, so it has served as my base line. To me this list makes one crucial error by not playing the second Indomitable Will. The rest of the maindeck decisions make a lot of sense to me and have served well in testing but it would be hard to overemphasize how important the second Will is to this deck. Hideous Laughter is a popular card and it is the card you likely fear the most, with Will serving as your best protection. Having access to two off of Tallowisp and giving yourself a decent shot at drawing one naturally makes this a lot less scary. It also lets you get two extra power off of Tallowisp, making up at least somewhat for the biggest weakness of this deck. The card I cut to make room is Kami of False Hope, as I do not feel I have a shortage of either one-drops or spirits.
David Crewe quotes Karl Kahn on this deck and what he says needs to be kept in mind: "This isn't actually a WW deck. It's a Fish deck that happens to be mono-White. All this deck wants to do is lay a moderately slow but inexpensive clock, stymie your opponent's efforts to defuse said clock, and hit you for four until you die. Sometimes Jitte gets involved, in which case swinging becomes synonymous with wiping your opponent's board, but it's still the same basic principle."
That's a nice way of saying two things only one of which is nice. The nice news is that you have a lot of ways to annoy your opponent, nullify more expensive cards and win with small, efficient cards. The news that is not as nice is that rumors of a fast clock are greatly exaggerated. I've never liked Fish as a strategy because your central plan is a clock and that clock is slow. It can work but the entire enterprise is constantly threatening to fall apart like a house of cards. Without counters the plan seems like it should be even worse.
The reason the White deck has a chance is that it gets full value out of Umezawa's Jitte, full value out of Tallowisp, gets Eight-and-a-Half Tails and has efficient cards for one and two mana while everyone else needs to pay a lot more. You save slots by not needing too many lands and can get value far out of proportion to cards spent with Jitte and Tallowisp. It has several tools that can protect its creatures with Blessed Breath, Shining Shoal, Eight-and-a-Half Tales and even Indomitable Will. When opponents try to fight you head on with targetable creatures Cage of Hands comes out often without costing you a card to let you continue the fight. When they try to fight you with removal cards you can protect yourself with advantage, letting their land count and your efficiency protect you. So far so good, but there's one big problem.
If they're not vulnerable to your few good ways to win the game, you're remarkably similar to a dead man.
Let's look at all of the things in the format and how you do against them. The easy ones come first: The mirror matchup eats up sideboard space for Empty-Shrine Kannushi but likely will not be all that toxic to the deck if they're using the same basic setup. The flip side is that it won't be easy to win it much more than random chance would indicate since it is not easy to be reliably better than your opponent at drawing Jitte or Tales. The problem that could make this much worse is if people are running alternate builds as the Tallowisp plan has issues against decks packing this much protection and if a White opponent gives up the enchantments your cards can end up looking poor in the mirror. If you could use some cheering up right about now, the red matchup is great. You'll also have an easy time when you face random creature decks full of cheap guys whose goal in life is attacking and blocking. Your cards are far better and they should give you little trouble.
Next are the matchups that are hopeless. The infinite fog engine is a game one automatic win for them if they're careful to play around the Shoal and don't get a horrendous draw. Your only reasonable answer while staying in White is Hokori and your mana base doesn't allow you to protect him. Those decks could even use Psychic Spear to protect themselves from him after sideboarding knowing you have nothing else they fear and that even if they miss him there are plenty of other cards worth hitting. The chance that you can kill them with your pitiful clock before they get their engine in place is very, very low. If you face the Honden deck, your plans don't impact your opponent as he will be planning to use removal that does work and stalling tactics that you will find almost impossible to race without walking into Final Judgment while stranding many of your cards. All you're doing is attacking me, so I can burn a card to Eternal Haze you for free to buy time building into my engine at no loss. Fish beats control by countering the key spell that will get them out of trouble. You can fight Hideous Laughter, but when that card is Final Judgment you can't win. Once again your entire game is on Hokori and once again you can't protect him even when you draw him.
The Arcane engine without Hana Kami is going to look to be a good game one matchup since you are very good at protecting your men but that is because most people have laughed off leaning on Horobi's Whisper and Dampen Thought as your engine. It's not the most reliable engine right now for many reasons, as the composition of many creature decks frustrates Horobi's Whisper. However it is almost impossible to defeat the Whisper/Thought engine even if they can't bring backup. Eight-and-a-Half Tails is your only real defense and your mana base isn't good enough to let him fight the good fight. If you're not very careful you could also just flat out lose a race if Jitte doesn't go active and trying to use it risks a large loss of tempo if they have removal to respond with. Then after sideboarding you have multiple good removal spells facing you that can take out Hokori (who once again is your only way to disrupt mana intensive plans that can't be caged) and you have to worry about everything up to and including a transformation into the Fog engine.
In each of these cases you are impaled on the horns of the mana dilemma. By giving up all the colors but White you cut off all the cards that would let you fight these strategies, but you simply cannot splash and still play the good white creatures.
With an easy win against other weenie decks, one mostly random mirror and horrible deaths against all the funky engines that want your head, the key question becomes your viability against the other two most popular decks right now: Snakes and Legends.
The Legend matchup comes down to whether they can find the answers that work. Trading their removal off against your creatures and protection spells is a losing battle for them because you have less lands and can protect while picking up extra cards off Tallowisp and protecting the key creatures. Eventually Eight-and-a-Half Tails will make that exchange untenable for them. Hideous Laughter is highly annoying and sometimes you have to walk into it to maintain a respectable clock but most of the time you can play to limit the damage. Having multiple Wills in your maindeck helps a lot here. The big problem is that they only need four turns to get down Kodama of the North Tree or Meluko if they draw anything at all and your clock is not fast enough to derail that plan. They have three pillars upon which they stand: Kodama, Meluko and Kokusho, the big three of the format, and you're highly vulnerable to two out of three. Even Kokusho isn't that bad against you if they can get two of them as that generates a full twenty-point life swing. If you're lucky enough that you don't have to face Meluko that helps, but if they can build their plan around the two Legends you fear then you'll need an active Jitte to win most games. Counting on Jitte to be drawn and then survive is not a good gamble and I've had it go active and still lost.
The problem in my mind comes down to the deck lacking power, and I mean that in terms of the numbers in the lower left hand corner. One of your two-drops has only one power and the deck plays a lot of cards that add one or zero power to your clock without being able to counter your opponents' spells. Too often playing out every threat is still only four or five damage when they remove one threat or even shrug them all off. When a card has less than two power, you're risking running out of cards before you can assemble a good enough clock. Without all the tricks the deck couldn't protect its key cards, but with them it has a simple power shortage when Jitte doesn't come to play. This isn't a problem of design, it is a problem with the concept. The design can try to limit the damage but it is not something you can fix.
I felt like my opponents were allowed to creep back into games because I ran out of gas that could attack them. Meanwhile the format should develop more and more natural resistance to your disruption. I was able to fight this matchup to a draw before sideboarding but only because I had multiple Wills, was drawing Jitte well, was winning the bluffing contests and was up against a model that packed only one Meluko and no Jitte removal. Even more than that, I faced a version that made one of the critical errors control decks can make: He had no way to turn time into a large edge. Once the legends came out, that was it, and I was able to steal games by weathering the storm. I felt like a better build would have had me working extra hard to try and steal half the games before sideboarding.
Yet again sideboarding offers you little. Hokori is once again an option with all the problems he brings. They get to make meaningful tuning decisions and I'm terrified of both Psychic Spear and Night of Souls' Betrayal in addition to Jitte answers. Sideboarding in removal for Night seems awful since even those using it won't bring the full four of a legendary card but how do you win against it? Even the creatures that survive lose half their power.
Don't even talk to me about second turn Time of Need into third turn Shizuko, Caller of Autumn when you don't have a Jitte. This play makes the entire rest of your deck look foolish and there is little you can do. Even when you do have the Jitte, they have a full turn to remove it (with three extra mana no less) before it can remove Shizuko. Once people figure out the role of Shizuko as the anti-Hokori you'll start facing him in half your post-sideboard games due to Time of Need. The world he creates is toxic to you and winning in that world with anything but Jitte will be all but impossible.
In conclusion, this matchup will become unfavorable if it is not already once opponents learn how to build their decks and play against you. The Tallowisp deck got ahead of the technology curve because its creators got it scarily close to correct quickly, but others are catching up if they have not already.
The snake matchup seems horrible on its face to me. How can you expect to out-produce them? With Summons and Jitte to match your Jitte you need a very lucky draw to not face a steadily growing army of snakes that at some point will go large on you. Cage of Hands doesn't stop the primary effects of any of their big men and you will quickly become outpaced on mana. The tide should turn against you if you can't get a lot of damage in quickly and then fall back on Shining Shoal and Lantern Kami to finish the job in time. When I played the White side I felt hopeless. They had a ton of mana sources and almost everything in their deck threatened to explode on you. To make sure I verified this from the other side while working on my own build of the snake deck and the results are hard to deny. In the absence of Jitte I felt invincible with any reasonable draw. Barring serious innovations that I can't think of, White is not going to be a threat in Philadelphia.
What might those innovations be? The obvious first step is the second Will, and I also would adjust the sideboard to try and give you a chance. A good question would be whether the deck should include Hokori in the maindeck. Often it seems like it ends up being your only hope. I think the answer is a resounding yes but simple space considerations keep you from going too far. The clock and protection both need to be there in game one. I would construct the deck like this:
1 Eiganjo Castle
Twenty-one lands is not enough for a four Hokori plan so one has to be in the board to support that plan. The third Shoal is a card I respect, and playing four copies of Will is something I've wished for but I know in my head that this is no way to make a living. I could be wrong about that but right now I value Hokori more. I also want to be able to put the first Hokori out there to be killed so that the second one can stick. As a side note, it might make sense for White/Green decks to sideboard a Hokori so they can Call up a copy to blow up yours, especially if they have Shizuko to pay for that plan. They could even use more than one if they want to spend board space, confident that you can hardly beat them in other ways and that while the exchange costs them mana they are far enough ahead that they don't have to care. To abandon Empty-Shrine Kannushi from the board would be to say that you're playing a bad deck, in which case the deck needs to be thrown away, so it stays. Quiet Purity wins over Terashi's Grasp because Hokori is part of the game plan there, but I still wonder about using Grasp to gain superiority in Jitte battles if they are as important as they look.
Bonus Feature! The Legend compendium.
And now, the complete list of Kamigawa Block legends...
Azumi, Tapper of Wizards (If you know what I mean)
Azusa, Lost and Found
Ben-Ben, Akki of the Second Rock.
Boseiju, Who Laughs at Blue
Daniel and Sebastian Zink
Chisei, Who Cannot Count
Dosan the Falling Options
Fumiko the Lowblow
Godo, Nike Slogan
He Who Noshes
Higure, the Passed Wind
Hikari, Masked by Twilight
Hisoka, Catching Flies with Chopsticks
Hokori, Riser of Water
Horobi, Universal Jinx
Inane, Slayer of the Dead
Inane, Eraser of History
Ink-Eyes, Sought by Mulder
Isamaru, Free from the Shelter
Isao, Stuck in the Past
Ishi-Ishi, Shooter of Crack
Iwamori of the Other Cheek
Jugan, the Fifth Dawn
Keiga, the American Idol
Kentaro, One Life Remaining
Kiki-Jiki, Format Breaker
Kiku, Source of Repentance
Kira, Great Pain in the Captain's Ass
Kodama of Whichever the Hell Tree You Want
Kokusho, Seen In Multiples
Konda, Lord of Hounds
Kumano, Master Pinger
Kuro, Replacement Lord of the Pit
Kyoki, Sanity's Eclipse
Mannichi, Shaper of Pasta
Masako, Life of the Party
Meluko of the Clouded Mirror Match
Myojin of Delusions of Godhood
Myojin, Pitched to Other Cards
Myojin You'll Never Play
Myojin of Very Little
Myojin Whose Casting Cost Will Never Match Anything
Nagao, Hopefully Not Your Last Samauri
Got Something In Your Opal-Eye
Oyobi Who Split Up the Beatles
Ryusei, Falling With a Thud
Sachi, Who Needs Her Mommy
Sakiko, Cards Slightly Discolored
Seizan, Fox News Anchor
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Tosit, The Only Snake In Town (that matters, anyway)
Shirei, Not Quite Dead Yet
Shisato, Not Progress
Shizuko, Breaker Loose of all Hell
Sosume, Son of Shesurwil
Takeno, Prisoner of War
Tomorrow, Another Day
Toshiro Umezawa, Our Hero
Yomiji, Drama Queen
Yosei, Dragon of Inaction
Zo-Zu, Goblin Prospector
If all goes as planned, next week's deck focus will be on those snakes.
This Week's Message That You Shouldn't Take Literally Because After Volunteering For Kerry I Have Enough FBI Problems As It Is
I realize he is doing his best, but let me be clear. Willie Randolph must die. Slowly and painfully. If possible he should be hit by a bunt. Either that or become a Subway spokesperson quickly and painlessly. Them's good eatin! Not quite as good as Quiznos but still, good eatin. Mmmm, pastrami. It's going to be good to visit New York this week.