Don’t Fall Behind: Some Kamigawan Fundamentals

What I’m trying to do here is to compare Champions of Kamigawa to previous sets, looking for similarities in the play of Limited games that might help lay down some basics for the new Limited format. Particularly, I’m looking for the existence of some form of “fundamental play” in the new set. You’re all giving me funny looks, so I’ll explain what I’m getting at. Cue the wavy screen and flashback music… [This is one of the better Limited Fundamentals articles we’ve received in some time, and is highly recommended for anyone looking to get a jump on drafting the new set. – Knut]

[Editor’s Note: Linkage to the Champions Spoiler until we get card images up.]

With Champions of Kamigawa upon us, opinions about the new cards will be everywhere. The notorious influx of set reviews is coming and, along with it, enough speculation about various cards to make one’s eyes bleed. Of course, the fact of the matter is that for at least a couple weeks, most of these reviews will be just that: speculation. Until some time passes and the format settles, it’s going to be hard to peg specific cards to specific values unless they clearly reside at one of the extremes of the unplayable-to-bomb spectrum, so rather than just throw my own opinions on the heap, I’m going to try to look at the new format in a slightly more general, more objective way.

What I’m trying to do here is to compare Champions of Kamigawa to previous sets, looking for similarities in the play of Limited games that might help lay down some basics for the new Limited format. Particularly, I’m looking for the existence of some form of”fundamental play” in the new set. You’re all giving me funny looks, so I’ll explain what I’m getting at. Cue the wavy screen and flashback music… (If you really don’t care, just skip down to the first decklist.)

Way back when, there was Invasion, which encouraged many colors, and there was Odyssey, which focused on the graveyard. If you could remember to play many colors or that the number of cards in your graveyard was important and you played a stable mana base, you could make do. For the more recent past, however, this hasn’t exactly been the case. Some may feel that Wizards is dictating our Constructed decks to us by over-emphasizing block themes (like Madness and Rebels and Affinity and Slide and…), but only lately have our Limited decks been influenced in similar ways.

In Onslaught Limited, the cards started dictating what went into decks, not just on a draft-by-draft basis, but broadly and for the whole format. Specifically, a third-turn morph creature became vital to any deck’s success. If you didn’t make your 2/2 man (or something similar) on turn 3, you were already behind in tempo, because your opponent was certainly going to have one. Everyone did; they were everywhere. You couldn’t shake a stick without hitting a face-down creature.

Even after you played your generic creature, if it got Shocked while your opponent played another one, you were still screwed. You’d be a turn behind, getting hit in the face for four while trying to mount some sort of defense. If you got another defender out there, that 2/2 now had a couple friend or two and enough mana behind it to possibly turn into a 3/4 or bigger, so blocking was less attractive than [And the punch line of the day is:”your average Ted Knutson Look-Alike Contest winner.”]

Add up the effects on game tempo and momentum and the turn 3 morph becomes what I think of as the format’s”fundamental play”: a single play that can dictate the course of the entire game. Of course, this wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret and as it became more apparent, land counts started climbing. The importance, the absolute necessity of getting that third land drop on time pushed players into eighteen land decks, often accompanied by a landcycler of two for an effective”land count” of nineteen or even twenty.

In addition, the various ways to cheat the morph play became valuable. Glory Seeker and Elvish Warrior were morph-sized men that hit the table a turn early, making up for their lack of late game flippery with some early game tempo and tribal synergy. Wirewood Elf became a hot commodity for giving the opportunity to play something better than a morph, like a Snarling Undorak, on turn 3. Sparksmith, the Official Most Ridiculous Draft Common Since Empyrial Armor, won the game by proactively canceling out your opponent’s morph on turn 2, allowing you to play your own without having to worry about the other side of the board.

Triple-Mirrodin drafts had a similar condition as the potential for a second turn mana-Myr ended up having some serious impact on decks and deckbuilding. First, access to always-playable mana acceleration distorted the average deck’s mana curve, since a deck with a high Myr count could just skip over the three-mana slot and go straight to four. Once again, the fact that the little robots were everywhere meant that even if you weren’t accelerating out your dudes, your opponent probably was, and if you couldn’t keep up, you were going to end up a splatter on Myr Enforcer’s big round tummy.

I’m not going to say that Myr were quite as vital as morphs – even at the height of their availability they weren’t as populous as morphs, so there was always the off-chance an opponent wouldn’t have any. However, their importance to successful decks is very recognizable (not only for their acceleration but also for their ability to support the affinity, sunburst and Nim mechanics). As they became scarcer later in the block, draft pick orders slowly pushed the Myr from the middle of the pack to third- or second-pick status. Even if they weren’t absolutely necessary, a turn 2 Myr was still a fundamental play of Mirrodin Limited – big advantages were to be had if one player had it and the other didn’t.


In my opinion, this is also one of the many reasons why Spikeshot Goblin never became as dominant as its predecessor, Sparksmith; it was simply too slow to get on the table, not only in an absolute sense, but relative to its format’s fundamental play. A ‘Smith would be active on turn three, right on time to axe the crucial morph, while Spikes only activated for the first time on turn four, when the opponent would have already gotten a few turns’ worth of use from their Myr.

End Aside

This all leads us to the new set, Champions of Kamigawa. If it is possible to determine the existence of a fundamental play in the triple-Champions format, not only will it provide a leg up by learning an important factor in drafting the new set, but also by letting us watch for ways to combat it.

The catch, however, is that nothing in Champions of Kamigawa quite resembles what we’ve seen recently. Both morphs and Myr were colorless cards, playable by anyone with the right number of lands and usable by anyone whose deck had a deficiency. These cards not being bound to a color let everyone get in on the fun, which really homogenized decks and set the plays as the standard in their formats. Champions doesn’t have a plethora of artifacts or restriction-free alternate mana costs, so whatever it is will have to be spread over at least three and possibly all five colors at the same cost. Morphs and Myr were also both plentiful, covering several common slots. Several cards of similar functionality would be needed to fit the bill and Champions doesn’t contain any glaringly obvious groups of cards like that (and I’m not prepared to point at Zubera just yet).

So does this mean that there is no fundamental play? Maybe. If there isn’t, this block could be similar to triple-Odyssey drafts, where archetypes tended to have more impact than any specific play. (Also, this article will be much less interesting.) If there is a play to be found, it’s not readily apparent and it will take some harder searching to find it. But fear not! As your dutiful writer, I will take it upon myself to play the new format and pursue this knowledge, not of what specific cards are good, but of what general kinds of cards are needed.

The things I do for you people.

Hey, you’re still here! Good to see you again. It’s been a few days and many drafts and I have a semi-decent bead on what’s going on with Champions (or at least as decent as can be expected this soon). My first brush was building some sealed decks around bomby rares, most of which include”Star” in the name, which was all well and good. However, when I played the actual games, I found that random generic, cheap, aggressive creatures were working really hard. Cards that I had put in just to make the right number of spells, cards I expected to be okay but nothing special, were putting in a lot of Red Zone hours and really knocking opponents around. This seemed like a fine place to start, so when I turned to draft, I decided to try to force decks that starred a lot of little dudes. This is a fairly typical example:

1 Kami of Ancient Law

3 Cruel Deceiver

2 Nezumi Cutthroat

3 Villainous Ogre

1 Nezumi Ronin

2 Kitsune Blademaster

1 Kabuto Moth

3 Mothrider Samurai

1 Nagao, Bound by Honor

1 Hikari, Twilight Guardian

2 Indomitable Will

1 Candle’s Glow

1 Blessed Breath

1 Rend Spirit

9 Plains

8 Swamp

This build has eighteen creatures, thirteen of which cost two or three mana. Of the five spells, four are combat tricks. I would give game recaps, but they wouldn’t be terribly interesting. This deck and others like it really just do two things: put men on the table and turn them sideways. It wants to lead off with a two-power creature on turn 2 (this particular model features six) and just keep sending everyone in. If they block, it makes the trade and drops more guys or uses a combat trick. I’ll give a very abbreviated game description.

Turn 2: Play Cruel Deceiver.

Turn 3: Attack, play Kitsune Blademaster.

Turn 4: Attack, play Indomitable Will on blocked creature, play Nezumi Cutthroat.

Turn 5: Attack, play Villainous Ogre and Cruel Deceiver.

Turn 6: Attack, trade Ogre with blocker, play Mothrider Samurai.

Turn 7: Attack for the win with five creatures to my opponent’s two.

Hikari, arguably the deck’s best creature (although Nagao is an absolute house), is actually the least needed – he’s powerful, but awfully slow compared to the rest of the team. For decks that don’t have their own cheap creatures to block yours, a single-minded strategy like this is too fast to handle. This seems promising to our search, so let’s take a closer look at the starting blocks of the deck: the two-mana two-power creature.

Looking at the card lists, we can see that two-power two-mana creatures (I hesitate to call them”bears” since a lot of them are only 2/1, which turns out to be pretty relevant with Zubera around) are available in the common slot for every color except Blue and in multiples for Green and Black, so they do have a fairly numerous presence. (Devoted Retainer and Ember-Fist Zubera, although they have only one power, are able to do two damage in combat, so they can be considered fallback options.) Having that quick drop puts the first attack on turn 3 instead of turn 4 and adds the extra attacker every turn thereafter.

Even if a defender does manage to mobilize some bigger creatures to block, they can be taken down by combat tricks like Indomitable Will or Kodama’s Might. At that point the aggressor has a sizable life advantage and can press the last points in without too much trouble. So far, when I’ve been”stabilized” against (usually meaning two blockers in play including one big enough not to die from it and no combat tricks up my sleeve), my opponent has had between five and eight life remaining while I’ve often still been at twenty. Decks like this are also very creature dense, so given some time one can get a numbers or evasion advantage that can grab the last life points.

In this scenario, the fundamental play is the turn 2 two-power crea-you know what, screw it, they’re bears, it’s easier to type and easier to read. Just try to remember they aren’t all 2/2. So, when this deck type runs the way it wants to, the fundamental play is the bear. There, that was easy enough. On the play, it puts you out in front of your opponent and lets you start beating down. On the draw, it catches you up and lets you make a quick trade on defense. (Of course, if you’re the one being attacked, you might not want to block and instead opt to race. Like most race scenarios, this is a risky prospect unless your hand is loaded and is extremely difficult if you can’t match them creature for creature, so it’s a call you’ll have to make yourself.)

A few specific card notes, so listen up. Especially in the early turns, the worst thing that can happen to you when blocking is an Indomitable Will (or Uncontrollable Anger or Serpent Skin) on the guy you’re blocking. Not only will you not make the trade, but you’ll have an even bigger attacker coming at you next turn. Therefore, if you expect your deck to be playing the Control, the man you want to have out there is Kami of Ancient Law. His ability to take down these enchantments can turn what would have been a none-for-one into at least an even trade. (Also, he makes a good Soulshift target later on.) On the other side of the table, if you plan to be the Beatdown, the man you don’t want is Humble Budoka, as he is incredibly easy for your opponents to block. Being untargetable may look like an ability, but on a generic dork that’s going to be in combat all the damn time, it’s a drawback. There will be no Kodama’s Might for him and your opponents will know it.

So that’s that. Sort of. Well, okay, not really. Even if I can say confidently that bears are good in beatdown style draft decks, does that make them a fundamental play? Is playing that creature on turn 2 really a necessity or just good use of mana? We need a control group – decks that go without the aggressive two-drops. If you can still win when you don’t start with or play something to block a bear on turn 2, either because they aren’t common enough to be a hindrance or they don’t do enough before being neutralized by bigger creatures, then we can rule out bears as the fundamental play.

I’m going to do some testing myself, but I also encourage you to go out and try all this as well. Try it either way – snatch up bears and see how they serve you (especially backed up by a couple combat tricks) or go without them and see how you fare against them (same deal). We’ll meet back here in, oh, let’s say four lines? Great.

Phew! That was a lot of work and I sure learned a lot. One thing I learned is that I positively hate Hankyu, but that’s not why we’re here. Another thing I learned is that it’s hard to beat down when you don’t have a creature on turn 2. Your deck is a lot clunkier and if your opponent manages to stabilize, he tends to do so with a much higher life total. You’re much less likely to win races or to force situations that best utilize your combat tricks.

Now that I think about it, I don’t care for it at all.

Anyway, here’s one of the decks I played while trying the bearless approach:

1 Ember-Fist Zubera

3 Floating-Dream Zubera

1 Jushi Apprentice

4 Ronin Houndmaster

1 Soratami Rainshaper

1 Kami of Twisted Reflection

2 Soratami Mirror-Guard

1 Kumano’s Pupils

1 Sire of the Storm

2 Yamabushi’s Flame

1 Hanabi Blast

1 Blind With Anger

1 Mystic Restraints

2 Petals of Insight

1 Honden of Seeing Winds

9 Island

8 Mountain

As you may be able to tell, this deck doesn’t really try to beat down at all. It’s definitely a controlling deck, using lots of card draw to pull ahead in the long game. In the early game, everything is focused on defense, even the Ronin Houndmasters, whose haste I rarely put to good use. I’m fairly surprised ‘I had four of them and I sort of want to write it off as an anomaly, but strange things do happen when drafting three packs of the same set. Still, I won’t be expecting it to happen again.

I did manage to avoid any bears, but I still ended up with some early game guys, including one Ember-Fist Zubera, who I noted above as a possibility for a fallback for bears. It actually seems that if you’re planning to be on defense, EFZ could almost be better than some normal bears, especially if you end up sitting across from a pair of Cruel Deceivers or Hearth Kami. I’m still not a fan of swinging with him (which I’ll get into a little later), but that’s why he’s a fallback.

Anyway, the early men were very good at blocking, as they should be, and although I did get into some situations where an insta-chantment would have really sent me reeling, my opponent never had the goods. I almost wish I had been wrecked one of those times, as it makes my theory look better, but I’ll have to settle for a”woulda.”

Case in point: I’m playing with the deck above against a G/W/b opponent who attacks his Orochi Ranger into my Floating Dream and Ember-Fist Zubera on turn 3. I double block. What happens? Kodama’s Might will only work if he decides to only kill Floating-Dream, and although Serpent Skin wouldn’t save him, Indomitable Will to take out FDZ and deal one point to Ember-Fist would leave him with a 3/3 and me with a tapped-down creature. This would have been extremely bad news, since my next play that game was Honden of Seeing Winds on turn 5, by which point I would have been hit for several points of damage and probably facing down another creature. Instead, he drops a Candle’s Glow and kills Ember-Fist, which leaves the Ranger to trade with Floating-Dream next turn. I get the Shrine down and start drawing cards after taking only a few points from a Burr Grafter, using the card advantage to slowly take control and win the game at just three life. A little more push from that Ranger or another two-power dude early and I wouldn’t have made it.

I also want to point out that the reason I ended up with cheap dudes at all despite trying to draft a deck without them is that it’s really quite difficult to avoid them. There are a lot of playable two-mana men out there, and even though I avoided Hearth Kami like the plague, if I had forsaken the 1/2s as well, I would have been playing a ten-creature deck. Like morphs in Onslaught, cheap creatures are so plentiful that there’s a chance you’ll end up with some no matter what you do, but it’s important to make sure you get ones that will actually help you. Even though the little creatures in the above deck helped on defense to a modest extent, they couldn’t manage any respectable offense at all.

In the second game against that same G/W/b opponent, we ended up in something of a stalemate. He didn’t come out fast enough to endanger me (I remained in the high teens) and my guys simply weren’t good enough to attack into his without getting massacred. I managed to get in a couple hits with the Rainshaper while my Mirror-Guards got thrown into Cages of Hands, but he found a Venerable Kumo so even an evasion victory wasn’t looking possible. I played Honden of Seeing Winds, but he matched it with a Honden of Cleansing Fire and started climbing up past twenty. At one point, I realized there was absolutely no way I would be able to penetrate his defenses and overcome his Shrine. The only reason I didn’t deck out before him was that I was able to turn Tomoya the Revealer on him for eighteen cards over two turns. P.S.: Your decks aren’t all going to have Jushi Apprentice in them. It’s not a sound backup plan.

If my opponent’s curve had been a little shorter, with more two-drops to put the fast clock on me, I probably would not have survived long enough to win that second game, or maybe even the first. On the other hand, if more of my creatures hadn’t been so defense-oriented, let’s say more 2/1s than 1/2s, I could have actively attacked and traded creatures with him, which would have let my card advantage engines have more of an effect. I mean, I won, but I won ugly, and not in any way I’d care to attempt again.

I drafted several other decks that attempted the no-bear approach, most of which didn’t work out against other decks packing small men because they were either too slow (if they were aggressively oriented) or got run over (for the control attempts). I did manage a fair number of game wins, but most came in situations like the ones above where my opponent also didn’t have any fast creatures to punish me for being slow. Still, as much as I’d love to get further into those matches, this is already running a bit long and the lessons to learn from them are pretty much the same as the ones above. Instead, it’s time for the wrap-up.

Is the bear the fundamental play of Champions Limited? At this point, I’m prepared to say yes. Everything I’ve seen in playing with the set indicates that a strong creature on turn 2 is key to taking control of the game with aggressive men or surviving long enough to bring more powerful, more expensive spells to bear. (No pun intended, honest.) This is based only on my experience, but I’m confident in it knowing that just about every Limited format ever has had strong aggressive decks. They usually take a little while to figure out, but hopefully this has helped some of us get a jump on the normal curve.

Finally, here are your take-home points: Small creatures are going to come out and attack. If you dominate the early combat, be it because 1) your creatures are better than your opponent’s (2/1s to 1/2s, for example), 2) your combat tricks are better than your opponent’s (lots of good examples above), or 3) your opponent just isn’t participating, you will have a massive advantage in the late game. If you dominate hard enough, there won’t be a late game. You won’t have a lot of control over number three, but keep numbers one and two in mind when you sit down at the drafting table. Bring a note card if you have to.

You know what, I’ll actually go one better and condense it further. If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this:

In Kamigawa, bears will chase you. Don’t fall behind.

Signing off,

Andy Clautice

clauticea at kenyon dot edu