Magical Hack: Ich Bin Ein Ninja!

Read Sean McKeown... every Friday at

After a week’s quick foray into the world of “issues and opinions,” exploring the nebulous “right and wrong” behind voting for Mike Long for the Hall of Fame, we’re back to the grindstone of tournament Magic just in time for the addition of Coldsnap to Standard.

After a week’s quick foray into the world of “issues and opinions,” exploring the nebulous “right and wrong” behind voting for Mike Long for the Hall of Fame, we’re back to the grindstone of tournament Magic just in time for the addition of Coldsnap to Standard. This look at the prior two weeks gives us two events to analyze, the German National Championships and Grand Prix: Hiroshima. As these things work, it’s the end of relevance for both of these formats, more or less… the National Championships circuit will from here on in be playing with Coldsnap in the mix for Standard, and we are down to just the very end of Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Limited. Coldsnap will introduce more archetypes to Standard… a Standard format already bloated nearly past comprehension with viable archetypes… and soon we will be Drafting With Rich to the tune of Time SpiralTime SpiralTime Spiral.

As my article’s title might suggest, there is one very interesting result from the German National Championships: the Erayo Ninja deck. What some might first dismiss as a flash in the pan, as Max Bracht’s pet creation that did well because he is good at Magic rather than due to any innate qualities of the deck, the more enlightened would note that flashes in the pan usually only flash once. One week after German Nationals, the deck won another event, bagging the North American Challenge in the hands of Ben “Future of American Magic” Lundquist. With just a very few changes, we see the following:

… and what a curious deck it is. Lundquist’s deck is a 73-card copy of the Max Bracht deck that won German Nationals, losing a Threads of Disloyalty and the fourth Disrupting Shoal from the sideboard in order to put in two copies of Shuriken to use against other aggro decks. To the untrained eye, this deck is appearing out of nowhere… but as Frank Karsten is trying to teach you in his new column on MagictheGathering.com, an untrained eye is a dangerous thing to have in a fluid metagame. No, this deck doesn’t seem to have a precursor in the Standard metagame, other than through Bracht’s testing for his National Championships. It does, however, follow a very neat trend we have been seeing: the rise of Blue-Green aggro-control decks in pre-Coldsnap Standard. One winning result is worth a serious look… two wins in two weeks, in events that have pretty stiff competition, suggest yet another change in time on the metagame clock, as we tick from control (Solar Flare and Tron) to combo (Heartbeat) to aggro-control (U/G). In addition to the Erayo Ninja deck, there was another interesting deck brewing at German Nationals, one that put yet another Kamigawa legend to work in a way not previously attempted: Azusa, Lost but Seeking a Home, who finally found one in the deck Billy Moreno stays up all night thinking about, Karoo.dec:

… yet another Blue-Green creation, though one of rather different stripe. Instead of beating down with 2/2 Ninjas, this one tries to beat down with huge Kudzu on turn 3, then untap and cast its choice of Simic Sky Swallower, Demonfire, or maybe “just” play Meloku the Clouded Mirror of Victory with the ability to crank out three (or more!) free tokens a turn. It’s like playing the Urzatron without having to settle for colorless mana, putting Sakura-Tribe Scout, Azusa, and Summer Bloom to work together to wonderful effect. (I do have to wonder, however, whether a turn two Summer Bloom would be that much better than Time of Need for a turn-three Azusa, Lost but Seeking, especially when a “late” copy of Summer Bloom does worse than nothing, while Time of Need might always “be ridiculous” i.e. Meloku.) If nothing else it seems to be very interesting and very fun, which seems to be true of pretty much any deck playing both Simic Sky Swallower and Demonfire to good effect.

The rise of Blue-Green decks, the switch to Coldsnap, a set whose chase rare happens to be a Green reprint (with benefits!) of a Blue card that quite literally defined its format in many ways… nah, it could never happen. Astute readers might recall a deck I put forward as a potential new archetype for post-Coldsnap Standard, An Icicle through the Heart(beat)… and even more astute readers (or editors, or… and let’s be honest… a more astute author) would have counted the deck and read 62 cards, as the “place-holder” Mana Leaks had yet to be removed [If you wanna send me 62-card decks, who am I to argue? They’re legal, after all… – Craig, amused.]:

This is certainly an interesting deck, and one I expect will see at least some play in the two months between the addition of Coldsnap and the death of Kamigawa Block in Standard. It is, though… to me at least… old news, an interesting first look at what you can do with Coldsnap cards. And it uses five of them, more than any other deck I have seen so far… six if you count basic Snow-Covered Island as being something “special”. Rune Snag’s use is obvious… it’s a Mana Leak variant with the downside of being weaker early on (like Miscalculation, which was “pretty good” back in its day) to pay off for being better with the second, third and fourth copy drawn, each much more likely to still counter a spell on their own as the game goes long. Mouth of Ronom and Scrying Sheets work well together, rewarding a moderately high mana count and high Snow count if you can afford the room to play enough Lands in your deck to sport them and the basic lands of the color (not colors) of your choice. And Phyrexian Ironfoot is the second coming of Steel Golem, who by the way made the deck work back in the good old days when beatdown decks ruled the roost before the coming of Combo Winter.

That last card, though… it’s a doozy. So much power, so asymmetrical, a situational counterspell that triggers for free each and every time your opponent plays a spell. By the way, did we mention that this “situational” counter is also itself uncounterable? As interesting as it is to see Counterbalance as a good card with Sensei’s Divining Top to shut down the opponent’s aggressive spells or win a counter-war, isn’t it more interesting to see it defending an aggressive deck instead? Following a convoluted segue to get here, let’s take a peek at a Blue-Green Aggro deck sporting Counterbalance for ridiculosity, like seeing a White-based control deck try and control the board if there’s always a Ninja of the Deep Hours sitting on top of the deck, countering Wrath of God

By the way, Sakura-Tribe Scout plus multiple Ghost Quarters plus Life from the Loam is, in fact, “so sexy it hurts” as the awful song goes. A better first-pass probably does exist, but as far as these things go this is pretty nice. Perhaps a more tuned list will come out of this weekend’s Japanese National Championships, as the trend towards U/G has been blowing steadily for weeks now. Landing Counterbalance in play is basically amazing in all instances, being generally unfair all around but basically demolishing traditional control strategies. Like all Blue-Green decks, this one has a bit of a problem against aggressive decks, but probably more overall game than, say, the Ninja deck, because it has the Sosuke’s Summons plan to buy time and help clog the board while your plan develops further. (And fewer zero-power creatures.)

The key choice to be made here was to decide between Gifts Ungiven (for Summons / Snakes, Ghost Quarter / Life from the Loam if that will work, and other fun pairs) and Muddle the Mixture (for one main-deck Jitte, the one Life from the Loam, Resize after sideboarding, and to cut “extra” copies of Counterbalance)… but the winner in my mind was the version of the deck that got Counterbalance into play and running the fastest (read: has four copies of it) and took greatest advantage of the Sosuke’s Summons (read: can search it out with Gifts Ungiven). The surprising call was cutting Snakes on a Plane (Patagia Viper) and Ohran Viper for Ninja of the Deep Hours, but you have to choose the card that fills the role you desire: you need something that costs four, to actually have a chance of protecting against Wrath of God, but you don’t want to pay full price for it… and if it can draw you cards, so much the better. Ohran Viper is a Snake, sure… and Patagia Viper certainly costs four… but it’s the Ninja that seems to suit the deck best even if he doesn’t get a bonus from Seshiro or “buy back” Sosuke’s Summons.

It’s a similar concept to the Bracht deck, in that it uses a Blue enchantment to lock the opponent out of the game. It just happens to be that instead of always getting the first spell (Erayo) it takes a shot in the dark at any spell, but doesn’t require the peculiar set-up that you see with the Bracht deck, such as attacking with Ornithopters, ever, or having Repeal plus Ornithopter be a key “combo.” After all, the old rulebooks from around Ice Age and Fourth Edition used to say, “‘Our apologies to anyone who has ever been killed by an Ornithopter… and now we have a non-Ravager-Affinity, non-Enduring-Renewal deck winning real tournaments (and fake ones, for that matter, on MTGO… though their “fakeness” is debatable) with Ornithopters that attack. Ornithopters that attack and sometimes even carry Umezawa’s Pointy Fork of Doom.

Looking at another soon-to-change format, soon we will be kissing good-bye to Ravnica Sealed Deck in favor of all Time Spiral all the… time… and as we have been watching Grand Prix after Grand Prix across the world, we have been tracking what has been proven to work in the City of Guilds. With an eye for the Day 1 Undefeated Decks, we’ve noted some key trends: the undefeated decks have been predominantly four-color decks, two key colors with two light to medium splashes, with plenty of Signets and Karoos to squeeze in that extra bit of power. At the start of the season, as chronicled in my earlier articles “Your Fate Is Sealed” and “Big In Japan”, we saw ten undefeated decks, nine four-color spreads along the lines of two colors splash two colors and one three-color deck. A few weeks ago, at Malmo and St. Louis, we saw four three-color decks and three four-color decks… as detailed more thoroughly in “Grand Prix Grandstanding.” If we’re noting trends, like the rise of Blue-Green aggro decks in Standard, it’s an interesting trend to see this from the undefeated players in Hiroshima:

Gone are the days, it seems, of predominantly four-color designs greedily taking extreme risks in the game of Thermonuclear War, slinging every bomb or power card they can stick in their 40 in order to build a better rock to bash their opponent’s head. If we are to presume that the professionals are still behaving as they did at the beginning of the season, which might be suggested at least in part by the Day 1 blog archives pointing out Julien Nuijten four-color fifteen-land deck, it might be interesting to note that the undefeated players in Hiroshima are much smaller names than some of the others found just below the 8-0 players in the 7-1 bracket. It would be foolish to say there is a correlation between ramping down the mana concerns of your deck instead of aggressively cramming in four colors, but as the season proceeded there is a definite precedent for three-color decks doing as well as the four-color decks that we saw at the start of the season.

Perhaps this trend will play out further in the last remaining Grand Prix, in Phoenix in two weeks… and the upcoming coverage at the Japanese National Championships, to begin this morning as presented to you by MagictheGathering.com “cub reporter” Brian David-Marshall. Even more exciting perhaps will be to see Counterbalance in play in a wider format, such as Extended, to see if it can be broken when let loose in a larger cardpool.

Sean McKeown
[email protected]