Shirei in Standard: A Case of Neither/Nor

Mr. Grydehoj takes you on a wild ride into the world of one-power creatures, where no matter what you try, the decks don’t quite end up working. That doesn’t stop them from being fascinating experiments in deckbuilding.

Warning: Just in case you don’t like having your time wasted, despite my best attempts, I couldn’t come up with a truly competitive deck for this article. The decks here can be a bit prickly, and I’m sure someone else could do better, but testing revealed that no big time, name-in-lights-style winning is possible with these particular combinations of cards.

Have you ever considered just how good Mono-Blue Control could be if it were retrofitted to include your friend and mine, Cosmic Larva?

I haven’t either. What’s really been tickling my fancy for the past few weeks is Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker. Shirei is, like certain pieces of advanced weaponry, endlessly versatile. In common with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker, Shirei is a 2/2 for five mana that starts winning you the game the turn you play it. Now, Shirei lacks Kiki-Jiki’s special charm (the charm of “combo-ing” with every non-legendary creature in the game), but it also lacks the Goblin’s teeth-grindingly difficult casting cost. Requiring only a single Black mana, Shirei can be combined with any color in the game. As it happens, Shirei combines best with Green, Kiki-Jiki’s companion color, so this is something of a moot point.

The primary restriction in building Shirei decks is the legend’s limitation to recurring creatures with powers of one or less. It’s worth noting that this restriction refers not to creature cards but to the creatures themselves at the time of leaving play. For example, a Lantern Kami equipped with Bonesplitter or an Arcbound Slith with two +1/+1 counters upon time of death will not be revived by Shirei. There’s no way of cheating your creatures into becoming great attackers. What this means is that, in contrast to R/G Kiki-Jiki which tends to be quite capable of surviving even without its namesake, Shirei decks have real reason to fear Cranial Extraction.

I’ll stop beating around the bush (as opposed to beating up on Bush, something I’ve never, ever done) and get on to the fun bit.

You’re mistaken if you believe the above deck is an attempt to fit Shirei into a typical B/G Death Cloud build. Although this deck has many of the same components (including the central combo, Death Cloud + mana), the presence of Shirei means that, far from avoiding playing creatures, B/G Caring Cloud runs as many as possible. Obviously, there’ll be times when Kokusho, the Evening Star will sneak you into the winner’s bracket, but the Dragon will, like a Health Maintenance Organization, only help so much. The real piece of brisket in the deck is Shirei.

Death Cloud, Grave Pact, and Plunge into Darkness all have their uses without Shirei, but with him, their usefulness is tripled (at least). Grave Pact’s playability has always been mitigated by its burdensome casting cost, but if there’s any two-color deck that can achieve triple-Black, it’s this one. Under the appropriate conditions, even a lowly Sakura-Tribe Elder can become a killing machine, mowing down Darksteel Colossi willy-nilly. Similarly, although Plunge into Darkness is, on the surface, one of the more powerful cards from Mirrodin Block, there has yet to be a mainstream deck that could truly abuse it. Here, however, it can achieve the following:

1) “Tutor” for Death Cloud or Grave Pact

2) Provide a sacrifice outlet for Grave Pact, or

3) Gain you so much life that Death Cloud can act as a kill-mechanism.

Elvish Scapper, meanwhile, may look underpowered, but it’s a cheap answer to Umezawa’s Jitte and Vedalken Shackles (even when summoning sick, Elvish Scrappers + Shirei can infinitely occupy both of these artifacts if Shirei is in play). Even though Child of Thorns appears less useful here than Bile Urchin, it’s necessary protection for Shirei; the Green Spirit can hinder death by Glacial Ray, Shock, Hideous Laughter, Umezawa’s Jitte, Echoing Decay, and Sword of Fire and Ice. Besides its mana production, one should note that Birds of Paradise can be a useful chump blocker against White Weenie. Sakura-Tribe Elder, meanwhile, is simply amazing with Shirei. Forget about Kodama’s Reach: No traditional Death Cloud deck can scrounge up so much mana. The Snakes also make up for the lack of Commune with Nature and Time of Need since, with Sensei’s Divining Top, they can get a lot of digging done.

The lack of Chrome Mox makes this deck a touch slower than traditional Death Cloud builds. If you’re playing Death Cloud on turn 4, you’re probably playing the deck incorrectly. You’re also probably losing consistently. You are, however, in an excellent position to combat early opposing Death Clouds; if you have out a few mana producers and random creatures as well as Shirei, opponents essentially have to rely on Kokusho for the win. If you have Cranial Extraction in the sideboard, you’ll want to gun for opposing Cranial Extractions first before moving on to Kokusho. In the B/G pseudo-mirror, then, the Shirei version has a distinct advantage.

This advantage disappears entirely, however, in most other match-ups. Without B/G Death Cloud’s spot removal suite, Caring Cloud relies entirely on Grave Pact for its pre-Cloud slaughtering. This isn’t always so relevant since, often enough, pre-Cloud defensive action is made irrelevant by Death Cloud itself, but two of White Weenie’s cards can make life (well, survival) particularly difficult for you.

Samurai of the Pale Curtain is seriously bad news for Caring Cloud. Grave Pact still permits you to ward off some beats, but few of your creatures trade with White Weenie’s in combat, so you’ll rarely get even the traditional Grave Pacted two-for-one if Samurai of the Pale Curtain is around. With most White Weenie builds playing many more creatures than Caring Cloud does, the Fox can be deadly. Nearly as worrisome is Hokori, Dust Drinker. True, you have Elvish Scrapper for opposing Aether Vials, and Birds of Paradise offer mana advantage, but unless you missed a significant turn 3 or 4 play (not a good sign to begin with), Hokori will be damning, setting your Death Cloud and possibly even Shirei back a few turns. Against White Weenie, a few turns might be all you have. It’s not all gloom and doom though. Samurai of the Pale Curtain and Hokori, Dust Drinker shouldn’t be too harmful for you after the first four or five turns of the game since they’re both awfully easy to kill with Grave Pact or Death Cloud if your opponent has few other creatures around. Furthermore, with White Weenie falling ever more in love with equipment, those same sources of forced sacrifice will often work double duty; Bonesplitter isn’t so hot if your opponent can’t keep a creature on the board.

Against Mono-Blue Control, you are seriously disadvantaged in comparison with traditional B/G Death Cloud decks. Shirei and Death Cloud are the only must-counter cards in your deck, and the threat of Boomerang makes it difficult to attempt any kind of card advantage with Shirei. Unusually for a Green deck, Caring Cloud often has few answers to Vedalken Shackles targeting Shirei (only Elvish Scrappers helphere). Because of your weakness against this popular deck, it’s necessary to stock up the sideboard with anti-MUC cards. Some of these, like Naturalize, will be useful in many match-ups, but you’d do best to forget about all that Shirei and Grave Pact nonsense. Though it might make your deck a non-synergistic mess of unrelated spells, side-in Troll Ascetic and even cards like Kodama of the North Tree or Cranial Extraction.

Big Red is rather more favourable for Caring Cloud. This deck’s removal is definitely a problem for Shirei but will never kill you on its own. The “big” in Big Red means that the virtually un-removable Grave Pact will be terrible for your opponent; Arc-Slogger isn’t a good trade for Sakura-Tribe Elder. Troll Ascetic, meant for the MUC matchup, should make a post-sideboarding appearance here. You may well win with Death Cloud and/or Kokusho, yet any game in which you expect Shirei to die immediately is unlikely to be an enjoyable one. Again, traditional B/G Death Cloud decks have a clear advantage here.

The addition of Grave Pact and better deck manipulation makes Caring Cloud a formidable foe for Tooth and Nail. With 20 sources of Black mana, you rarely have difficulty playing Death Cloud or Grave Pact early enough to prevent Tooth and Nail from getting its work done. Still, if Sundering Titan enters play before you’re properly set-up for it, the game is just about over.

While the matchups described above might not appear too bad for Caring Cloud, the deck really gets kicked around by the more random decks. Fast Red creatures backed by burn and hordes of pinging insect tokens are about as funny as the World Bank (Note: This is not genuine political commentary. I love the World Bank. The very idea of the World Bank is hilarious.). If traditional B/G Death Cloud isn’t even Tier 1, Caring Cloud is way down the list of playable decks.

Unsurprisingly, the creature that has gotten the most attention as a Shirei-companion has been Hana Kami. Well, I’ll let you know straight off: Don’t try it. The idea of having an Arcane-limited Revive effect every turn is tempting, but any deck that tries the combo has to deal with a bi-polar gameplan. By choosing to abuse Hana Kami, you’re pretty much choosing not to abuse Shirei. Here, Shirei is much like Soulless Revival, except it’s terribly vulnerable and is free after the first turn. Obviously, if you’re playing Shirei and Hana Kami, you might as well also play Soulless Revival just in case. Sakura-Tribe Elder is a solid enough card on its own to warrant inclusion in the deck, but you certainly won’t be complaining if you get it out alongside Shirei.

Still, what, exactly, would you want to recur with Hana Kami? Cranial Extraction is the obvious candidate. Using it once or twice a turn will neuter opposing decks quickly enough, yet is this a powerful enough effect to base one’s entire strategy around? Swallowing Plague is another possibility even if it’s only playable here because you need life gain in order to survive into the late-game. Overall, however, the plan seems rather suspect. I’ve yet to hit upon even a remotely satisfactory build (that is to say, they’ve all been worse than last article’s Bachelor Party deck). If you really want to make the idea work, consider running a couple of Shirei as extra copies of Soulless Revival in a dedicated Soulless RevivalHana Kami deck. If nothing else, it helps against opposing Cranial Extractions.

Moving away from Green, the next color which stands out as a Shirei partner is White:

There’s more going on in this deck than it looks like there is. Any leader of the free world (No, no. I mean him. You’re all so easily offended. I don’t mean him.) will notice the Kami of False Hope + Shirei soft lock, but what’s even niftier is how Moonlit Strider retrieves the Kami of False Hope that you sacrificed early on at the same time as it protects Shirei. Considering Moonlit Strider, Second Sunrise appears a bit redundant until you think of just how awful the deck is without Shirei. If an opponent destroys Shirei after you’ve sacrificed your team, having another Shirei in hand won’t do much good; having Second Sunrise will. Terror is around in case you meet Samurai of the Pale Curtain.

I’ve also tried Dross Harvester in the deck. Sometimes, the Horror would be monstrous, gaining life while ripping through White Weenie defences. Without Shirei around, however, Dross Harvester is rarely a good deal, and if you already have Shirei and multiple 1-power creatures in play, you’re probably winning anyway. Auriok Champion is provides more consistent (if less dramatic) life gain and is extraordinary in helping the deck’s stalling strategy.

So, is B/W Shirei better than B/G Caring Cloud? It depends on how you look at it. The B/G version is far more consistent, can better search for Shirei, and pretty much wins directly after destroying an opponent’s mana base. On the other hand, B/G Caring Cloud winces every time Kokusho, the Evening Star flutters down onto the other side of the board, and B/W Shirei is awfully difficult to disrupt once it’s set up. Furthermore, against a deck like White Weenie, Kami of False Hope + Shirei is a deathblow unless there’s a Umezawa’s Jitte in play that already has two counters on it. Setting up this last situation against a savvy opponent is a bit tricky. One possibility (one untested possibility) is replacing Ravenous Rats and Second Sunrise with your own full set of Umezawa’s Jitte. The deck certainly has enough sacrificial lambs to fuel the equipment, and it provides a non-Terashi’s Grasp answer to the most dangerous artifact you can face barring Vedalken Shackles.

But what, you might ask, about Vedalken Shackles? How does the deck deal with those?

It doesn’t. B/W Shirei flounders and then expires against MUC. Such, it must be said, is the price paid for running only one must-counter card in your deck.

Be this as it may, it is my considered suggestion that neither of the decks listed here ever “be” at all. For Standard, forget about Shirei. It’s for the best.

Adam Grydehøj

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