Saviors of Kamigawa Previews: Week the Second

While everyone else is busy writing up their set reviews, Andy wraps up his strategic review of the previews and tells you whether the cards MagictheGathering.com let us peak at early are winners or stinkers.

By the time you read this, the Prerelease will be almost here. (Either that, or it will be slowly receding into history – either is possible, it just depends on Ted.) [Sadly we had so much Pre-prerelease articles that this one had to wait until Monday. – Knut] With the weekend nearly upon us, steadfast rumor-mongers have diligently collected every scrap of information, and almost completely accurate spoilers are now available to the public.

What does this mean for you? For one, it means you’ll be reading numerous full set reviews on this here site here for the next couple weeks, but it also means context. As more information about the rest of the set becomes public, your faithful servant (that’s me) is better able to evaluate each previewed card. Hopefully I’ll be able to give you more specific insights this week, likely with pointed references to other, unpreviewed cards (which you’ll find at the end of the article).

With the formalities out of the way, let’s get down to business, starting with a card from last week that slipped in under my radar in John Carter’s Saturday School:

Sasaya, Orochi Ascendant

The new cycle of flippers convert into legendary enchantments, an excellent twist for a mechanic I think is very cool to begin with. Sasaya is clearly not the best of these.

The best flip cards so far have been those that reward you by flipping just for playing the game (Faithful Squire), those that are useful in their natural state (Jushi Apprentice) and those that “combo” with their flipped selves (Nezumi Shortfang). Sasaya is none of these. He flips if you choose not to play the game, doesn’t do much in his base state and actually works counter to what you want once he converts.

Between Kodama’s Reach and Seek the Horizon*, it’s actually within the realm of possibility to accumulate the seven lands you need to flip Sasaya… which is the problem. They breed hope, when this card is best left abandoned. Don’t get me wrong – Sasaya’s Essence does have a powerful ability – but even so, Heartbeat of Spring already provides some pretty obscene amounts of mana without jumping through all these hoops. Any deck intending to flip Sasaya will have to play more than fifty percent lands or land searchers, and while that’s not unheard of for this block, you’re now relying on chance to put together your engine.

Even so, reaching critical mass probably will require either holding back or reclaiming lands with some Soratami or sweep spells, and none of these seem quite worth the cost when you can skip the middleman with Heartbeat and/or the conventional Elder/Reach mana engine. Then there’s the problem that, unless you just picked up four lands with Meloku, you’ve been discarding or suboptimally playing your business spells just to accumulate lands, and if Meloku is active, do you really need this enchantment? I’m just having problems imagining a scenario in which you’ve gotten seven lands into your hand without sacrificing the game as it already stands and you need the bajillion mana Sasaya’s Essence will give you.

Kagemaro, First to Suffer

Like most of the Maro cycle, Kagemaro has the credentials to be a good Limited card. Unlike some of the others, this one is an unadulterated bomb. Not only does he have a potentially massive body in a reasonable casting cost, he packs a Wrath effect accessible on demand, at instant speed. Like Pernicious Deed, his effect is even flexible, so with the right conditions, you can savage your opponent’s team and leave yours intact enough to smash face. Not that he needs one more point in his favor, but Kagemaro is also a Demon, letting you turn on any nifty Ogre abilities you may have lying around.

In Constructed, Kagemaro has to tussle with such hits as Kokusho and Ink-Eyes if he wants to see play in the beefy Black finisher spot, but that’s not really where he’s best suited. His board-clearing effect will win the hearts of everyone who has tried to force life into the Mono-Black Control archetype since the loss of Mutilate. Being fed by Night’s Whispers and Phyrexian Arenas, Kagemaro can be a failsafe against the new Hand of Honor* or just truck out there on turn four and start growing.

Being cheaper than the Dragon or the Ninja (when hard-cast) means that Kagemaro is less vulnerable to Ponza-style land destruction. His growth potential can put him out of the reach of Vedalken Shackles. Neither variety of Sword can offer White Weenie much protection against getting swept off the board. He even activates from a single Swamp, so an opportune Kiki-Titan doesn’t turn him off, letting him at least take down the problematic Goblin. Kagemaro has many things going for him, and I would be at least a little surprised if he doesn’t peek his weird little worm-body out at Regionals.

Okina Nightwatch and Deathmask Nezumi

I’ve put these two together for reasons that are hopefully obvious. Each is a perfectly fine creature for Limited in any circumstances – even at 4/3, the Nightwatch serves as a fine five-drop in a color that’s been making do with Kashi-Tribe Warriors and Harbinger of Spring, and the Deathmask is a simple Grey Ogre if nothing else – but when their conditions are met, both become extremely powerful. A 7/6 for five or a 4/3 with fear for three is a stellar deal and either can threaten to win the game in short order.

I’ll be more than happy to play either of these cards, but that’s almost beside the point. What’s really worth noticing is that the “hand size matters” (or “wisdom”) mechanic has really been pushed. By making cards that are acceptable at any time, but ridiculous when active, Wizards has forcibly thrust the battle for hand dominance onto draft tables everywhere. These cards will not lay unused in sideboards; instead, they will become part of the rank and file that makes up every solid draft or Sealed deck.

As a result, every card in every deck gains an additional, implied value. Every game, you’ll be asking yourself, is this card better played out onto the table as itself, or as one more card in my hand? Is that Bile Urchin really even worth putting in your deck, when it can do so much more simply existing in your hand than it ever could on the board? If it’s the difference between a 4/3 and a 7/6, why ever cast it?

Hyper-aggression may, in fact, be completely dead as a draft strategy. When an aggressive deck sacrifices the hand battle by dropping weenies, it will activate every “more cards in hand than each opponent” ability in the other player’s deck. The aggressor will be completely unable to get that advantage back if something like Descendant of Kiyomaro* hits play. Every card drawn will be matched by a card from the opponent, every skipped land drop can be mimicked, leaving them one step behind for the rest of the game unless he or she completely stops playing and builds up to seven cards, at which point the game may already be over.

If nothing else, simple card advantage cards like Counsel of the Soratami and Waking Nightmare will gain ground from this pushing of the “wisdom” mechanic. If engines like Nezumi Shortfang and Azami, Lady of Scrolls weren’t bombs before, they are now.

Spiritual Visit

While a small spell to be sure, this comes with exactly the right price on it. Similar to Spark Spray in its unspectacular solidity, Spiritual Visit provides an effect that will certainly be useful in any Limited deck. It can create a surprise blocker that foils an alpha strike, serve as a double-teamer to take down a slightly larger attacker, or trigger a spiritcraft ability for super-cheap, and that’s without even splicing it onto anything. That it can also serve as an inexpensive and non-wasteful hull for other powerful splicables is also worthy of note.

In Constructed, I am uncertain as to whether modern White Weenie would care to run the Visit, but it’s conceivable. With Blessed Breath and/or Shining Shoal serving protective duty, a Spiritual Visit would be an acceptable one-drop with a big upside. Even just an end-of-turn token picking up a couple Swords makes for a strong threat. What is more notable to me is that this can be added to the modern Hana KamiEthereal Haze lock as a kill condition that isn’t even subject to being Finally Judged back, or even replace the Haze when only one (non-trampling) critter is the offending party. Granted, Glacial Ray had the first part of that covered already and was not considered, but with the Visit being on-color already, it may be more worth a slot.

In any case, this is a very nice card wrapped up in quite an elegant little package.

Barrel Down Sokenzan

When I saw Sweep, I died a little inside. Not only is it another keyword in a small set (that’s three for Saviors: Sweep, Epic and Channel), but it’s one that doesn’t even have any rules text attached to it! Take the Sweep “keyword” off the card and what happens? Nothing! The card still functions perfectly. The word serves no purpose other than to force us to use the word Wizards wants us to, which we’ve done just fine in the past without having it on the cards themselves.

But wait! It gets even dumber. How many “Sweep” cards there are in Saviors? Four. There are less cards with this keyword than there are colors in the game. I cannot conceive of a more useless thing to actually put on a card.

Yet, here it is. It’s enough to make me wonder if this battle is even worth fighting, especially when Rosewater says that spiritcraft abilities would be keyworded if they were printed today. Can they learn nothing from the fact that these triggers worked fine without an unneeded keyword attached to them? Apparently not. I am not one to plead for help, but now I feel I must do so. Please, if you feel the way I do, go to their website and send these people emails. Rosewater and Forsythe have the ability to change this, and while I can pray that they will see the error of this travesty, having voices shouting it to them as well can’t hurt.

I don’t hate all keywords, I swear. I just hate the bad ones.

Oh, the card? I’ll get to it in tandem with this one:

Spiraling Embers

Between Barrel Down Sokenzan and Spiraling Embers, Red is being infused with some very nice removal in Saviors. Although the Embers are splashable, Barrel is not, so Red drafters will get at least one quality spell coming their way in the last round of packs, rather than having even more removal be hijacked by other players. Barrel is even the more effective of the two – with even just three Mountains, it can knock off just about every creature the format offers, which is certainly a fine deal for just three mana. The “Sweep” (ugh) of Barrel can also provide instant speed hand-boosts, which may prove very important with any permanent on the board that cares about your hand. I’ve heard there may be a few of these.

I also should note that these are both fine Arcane spells, and are representative of a general increase in the quality of Arcane spells over what was seen in Betrayers. With only Horobi’s Whisper and Torrent of Stone as top-notch common Arcane spells, the strong Splice spells of Champions had a little less “oomph,” but with cards like these two, Spiritual Visit and Inner Calm, Outer Strength*, splicable spells will retain their big upside. With another pack’s worth of Roars of Jukai or Veils of Secrecy, Yamabushi’s Flame could have easily eclipsed Glacial Ray, but it won’t.

Barrel Down Sokenzan has some Constructed potential as a Dragon-killer for not much mana. The problem still exists of dealing with the trigger that will probably be forthcoming, but just getting past the giant monster is less of a problem now. With Thoughts of Ruin running around, it can also both protect your land base and inflate the destruction wreaked on your opponent.

Spiraling Embers, on the other hand, will still fail to get a pure Splice deck off the ground. Why? Same reason as before – Kodama of the North Tree.

Rushing-Tide Zubera

The existence of more Zubera is cause for great joy to casual players all over the world, I am sure. This new breed, however, is freed from the need to stick with its brethren, and so more options open up. Anthony Alongi did well to note that the RTZ is quite solid just as a 3/3 for four with the potential for a big boost of cards, but Standard decks will probably still opt for Solemn Simulacrum in that slot until Mirrodin rotates out.

Block gives the newest Zubera a place to play, but with much larger monsters already roaming the format, it’s only really worth playing if you think you can cash out the cards. Thus far, there haven’t been many mass-damage spells that could easily do your dirty work – Jiwari, the Earth Aflame* seems to be the only one – so you may be relying on your opponent to bring about the painful demise of your Zubera. This may be difficult to work if the Dragon-heavy decks stick around, but the same Red deck that sports Thoughts of Ruin may find this Blue Spirit a little troublesome.

Think about the removal options Red has: Torrent of Stone, Barrel for four and double Glacial Ray all trigger RTZ. To get around giving you three cards, your opponent would need Yamabushi’s Flame, First Volley-plus-Ray or a very precise Spiralling Embers, none of which are as empirically powerful as the previous options. The problem with this is that Umezawa’s Jitte can foul up exactly how much damage is needed. Then again, your own Jitte may force the issue, requiring 4+ damage in order to get the Zubera off the board at all.

Hand of Cruelty

I get the feeling that we may see many a Rat Ninja disguised as a Human Samurai in upcoming months. Many of Kamigawa’s Black weenies have been of the sort that your opponent really wants to block anyway – guys like Wicked Akuba or Nezumi Graverobber – but the Hand makes blocking that much more difficult. Against White Weenie, he means at least one hit with a Throat Slitter or even Ink-Eyes, or he can just pick up a Jitte to wreak absolute havoc. Granted, they have the Hand of Honor* as well, but between reanimation via Ink-Eyes or sweeping by Kagemaro, Black is much better equipped to deal with the opposing protected creature.

Mike Flores deals with Standard in his preview article, even if it is only one paragraph. It still contains the relevant info: Death Cloud means Black is currently control, but the next rotation will add Maher’s Invitational card and could bring Black beatdown back. Limited requires even less coverage, as the pure efficiency of the Hand makes him better than almost any non-removal card, but that will likely be expounded on by at least three other articles, so I’ll leave it be.

I wish I had more to say about this guy, but he is a simple man without a real home to call his own yet. I do recommend Mike’s article – the history lesson is entertaining as always.

That actually wraps this up for the moment. Yes, there’s another preview card coming Friday, but I have to send this in now for there to be any chance of it going up before the Prerelease happens. I’ll drop into the forums and post my take on Friday’s card. I wish I could make a Prerelease, but I’ll be busy Saturday graduating from college – instead, I wish all of you the best at your own.

Signing off,

Andy Clautice

andy dot clautice at gmail dot com

* – For convenience, these are the Saviors cards I referred to that are not from official previews.

Seek the Horizon

Hand of Honor

Descendant of Kiyomaro

Inner Calm, Outer Strength

Jiwari, the Earth Aflame