Should You Fear The Ninja?

Kamigawa Limited hasn’t really encouraged blocking – but that’s about to change, and unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock, you know why: Ninjutsu. Any unblocked creature could turn out to be a Ninja in disguise, so it’s time to start thinking more about that Cruel Deceiver and whether it’s worth your Kami of Ancient Law, because a Throat Slitter might be lying in wait to knock him off anyway. But does the danger of a Ninjutsu smackdown make blocking your default option?

In Magic, as in life, history tends to repeat itself – and when it does, it’s important for the player base to take note, since keying in to similarities between “now” and “then” lets us make use of past knowledge. Even if this knowledge doesn’t relate directly to what’s in front of us, the release of Betrayers of Kamigawa on the Limited environment presents us with such an opportunity. Mike Flores was right on the money when he observed that Kamigawa Limited is about to start resembling a more recent block: Onslaught.

Since we’re considering tempo-based formats, it’s nothing surprising that these similarities are going to be seen in the arena of early-game combat. I previously wrote about the importance of establishing a board presence in the early game in Kamigawa, and these lessons still apply – but new factors are coming into play regarding exactly how to best establish it. When you were playing in a purely Champions environment, a defensive deck attempting to stabilize the board only needed to fear the potential combat tricks of the attacker. Much like Onslaught players were often wary of blocking an incoming morph creature that could become larger after blockers were declared, Kamigawa’s insta-chantments like Indomitable Will present the possibility that a potential trade will result only in a dead creature and larger attacker.

In both formats, blocking was an unattractive proposition. Unless you have some trumping trick in hand (or a Zombie Cutthroat) that can keep any nasty surprises in check, or are putting enough volume of blocker out there (either by size or quantity) that you can weather the storm, one might be inclined to play it safe and just take the hit.

Onslaught, however, had a counterbalancing force that made blocking sometimes the right play: Skirk Commando. The Commando threatened the possibility that not blocking would still lead to the demise of your precious creature, not to mention force you to block it on the next turn, netting the aggressive player a valuable two-for-one. The tension between Skirk Commando and its blocker-punishing counterpart, Battering Craghorn, even inspired its own dilemma installment.

Until now, Kamigawa hasn’t really had a similar factor encouraging blocking – but that’s about to change, and unless you’ve been living under a proverbial rock (and even failed to click the Flores link above), you know why: Ninjutsu. Any unblocked creature could turn out to be a Ninja in disguise, so it’s time to start thinking more about that Cruel Deceiver and whether it’s worth your Kami of Ancient Law, because a Throat Slitter might be lying in wait to knock him off anyway.

In examining the impact Ninjutsu should have on Limited players, I’m once again going to try to stay away from judging specific cards – at least in relation to each other. The only thing I intend to consider important is whether a card is or isn’t of playable quality (although, I’ll admit, I could end up being wrong about that), and not if it’s better or worse or should be picked higher or lower than another card. (Hopefully, what we learn here will help you make that call yourself.) The end result won’t be quite as much about what you should do while putting together your twenty-three playables as it will be about knowing what to expect when your opponent brings his deck to the table. Knowing what you’re going up against should (again, hopefully) give you the context you’ll need to consider your draft picks.

First of all, for all the similarities to Onslaught now showing up, there are also differences between now and then. For one thing, goblins have quite a different style than your average Ninja, preferring to burn, scorch and break anything they can lay a hand on (which are mostly opposing creatures) instead of making off in the night with a drawn card or a revived corpse. Only Throat Slitter really mimics the Commando, although certain rare Ninja threaten even more painful consequences.

We should also consider that in his time, Skirk Commando got through a lot more often than not because he was the only card out there that would punish a non-block. This time, this is not the case; there are several different Ninjas dwelling in the shadows of this set. In addition, in Onslaught, almost every single other card – from Snarling Undorak to Wall of Deceit to Aven Liberator – would get the chance to wreak havoc if another creature was put in front of them.

Now, not every creature will be a threat to eat your face if you block. Adding Betrayers to the mix means one less pack of Champions, which in turn means there will be fewer Serpent Skins or such available for total wrecking of your board position. Cheap instants still abound, though, as one pack of Kodama’s Mights and Blessed Breaths has been replaced by the slightly less impressive Mending Hands and Hundred-Talon Strike.

These two factors mean that the desire to declare those blockers is far greater than it was in Onslaught. To begin to appreciate how much greater, one needs to look at what effects one can be hit with. As noted above, only Throat Slitter, an uncommon, actually threatens to kill a creature if allowed through. Most of what will be running around will do something else, so the four common Ninja should be the first focus of our attentions.

Skullsnatcher, while getting points from me for being a bear, loses those points for being almost completely worse than Cruel Deceiver. This guy does not exactly have an ability to make you shake in your boots – so while he may be lurking out there, fear of losing two cards from your graveyard really shouldn’t lead you to make a questionable block. Hell, in the early game you shouldn’t even have that many cards in your graveyard.

Mistblade Shinobi at least affects the board, but bouncing one creature on each side won’t have much impact in the early turns. I take that back – it will have the impact of setting both players back a turn and leaving one with a 1/1. You can replay your Cruel Deceiver after combat and on his turn your opponent will play out his Matsu-Tribe Sniper again, if not something bigger. All told, it won’t have much net impact. Granted, later on, a Shinobi could sneak in to completely foul up racing math (or team up with a Soratami Mirror-Guard to really put the screws on), but in the early game its best use seems to be for a threat-light attacker to slow things down a little while trying to draw into more creatures. Fear not the Mistblade; he will slow your opponent down as much as he will you.

Sadly, the Mistblade is the only common Ninja that affects the board in any way other than bouncing your creature. Ninja of the Deep Hours and Okiba-Gang Shinobi only offer card advantage, and while that’s always nice, it isn’t always worth tying up a lot of early-game mana. “Deep Blue” is, of course, very powerful when busting out on turn 2 courtesy of a Teardrop Kami or some other one-drop – but skipping your three-drop to get him out there essentially costs an turn’s worth of plays for a free card. For those taking notes, that’s the difference between playing first and drawing first, and I believe there’s a reason most people choose to play. Drawing in a tempo-based format isn’t exceptionally hot, but this guy is giving you a second chance at it.

I’ll put it this way: in the first few turns, cards aren’t your scarce resource; mana is. Flashing out a Ninja on turn 3 instead of playing a three-drop trades mana for cards – in other words, it trades what you don’t have enough of for something that you have plenty of. This in mind, blocking only to avoid the chance of a hit by Deep Blue shouldn’t be high on your list of priorities. If your opponent wants to shoot himself in the foot on turn 3 or 4, let him.

Okiba-Gang Shinobi suffers from many of the same symptoms, but has a few edges worth talking about. First, if the Rat Pack makes contact, the net gain is two cards instead of one. Second, this will more often be an actual upgrade in size, with a power of three not only hitting for another point of damage, but also giving a better chance of trading with another creature on subsequent turns. Third, by forcing an opponent to discard multiple cards at once, you can disrupt the game plan they had in mind when they played their own turn out and run them out of steam much sooner than normal. Considering this, it’s a lot more attractive to block an incoming critter when considering the possibility of being clubbed for two cards.

There are certainly scenarios in which I would drop this guy out on turn 4: if my opponent’s hand was almost completely gone already, if I had removal to ensure I’d get through with him again or – and this is the big one – if I had no other relevant four-drop. If I had to make the choice in the early game, I’d much rather be sneaking this guy out than a Ninja of the Deep Hours. However, with that four-mana Ninjutsu cost, if you allow him to prevent you from continuing to play creatures, the tempo penalty is even more significant than it is for Deep Blue.

This decision is not a light one, so correctly figuring it out means having to correctly identify whether or not you are The Beatdown. (You know what, I’m not even going to link that. If you’re reading this article and trying to improve, but haven’t read the closest thing Magic has to canon literature yet, it’s on your head. If Ted is good enough to provide you with one, it is his doing only.) (Actually, it’s Ferrett on deck for today, and I will link itThe Ferrett)

Anyway, a Beatdown player will probably not be in position to benefit from sneaking out a Rat Pack – how many times will the Beatdown lack a four-drop? – but the Control will probably be declaring blockers anyway, so the point isn’t all that relevant. If the Beatdown player suddenly finds a creature coming back his way, though, it’s probably (and sort of strangely) a good idea to block unless you savor the idea of losing two potential threats and running out of gas a lot faster than you anticipated.

As we move on up to the higher rarities, we now encounter potentially devastating Ninja abilities. Throat Slitter, of course, is of marquee quality for both its excellent Ninjutsu cost that allows it to piggyback on any of the numerous black two-drops and its ability to knock off opposing critters. Blue’s uncommon is…well, less than sexy. A power that is probably less than the creature you return and an ability that not only doesn’t affect the board, but doesn’t affect anything, is more than I can stomach, even when accompanied by what could be a marginally useful activated ability.

The rares are, of course, excellent, as Legendary Ninja should be. Ink-Eyes would be a face-smashing even without regeneration, and I’d still consider playing Higure, the Still Wind if he had no triggered ability (which, I suppose, might be how you play him more often than not). With all the gravy poured on, these two are, respectively, “bombtastic” and “very solid.” It’s just too bad you won’t get to play with them very often.

On the whole, without any truly back-breaking effects in the common slot, Ninja are probably not going to completely ruin your day if you let one through. However, it still pays to be on the lookout; just be sure you’re aware of exactly what you even have the potential to encounter. As it stands, black and blue are the only ones sporting Ninja, so obviously this is all only a concern if your opponent has either swamps or islands in play. (Although how crazy would an alternate-cost Ninjutsu card make things?)

On the other side of the coin, you only need to really worry about pump or protection effects if your opponent is sporting forests or plains, although the occasional Uncontrollable Anger can lead you to fret over mountains. Your main times for concern will come when your opponent has one of each pair of colors – a white/black deck, for instance, could be hiding either a Ninja or a Hundred-Talon Strike.

It should be noted that in such cases, the aggressive player is gaining even more of an advantage with Ninjutsu in the mix than before. If a player has both Indomitable Will and Throat Slitter in hand, he is not even required to commit one to the table until the blocking has been done – and there are no Zombie Cutthroats to bail out defenders. Instead, creatures that can even block attackers that are backed by pump spells without biting the dust are going to continue to increase in value. Hang on to those River Kaijins, folks.

One Betrayers card I really like for such defensive purposes is Kami of the Vanishing Touch. If we could have gotten a straight Wall of Tears reprint, it would have been incredible, but this slightly smaller substitute is still alright. It sadly can’t tackle most Samurai, but it is an excellent choice for putting in front of any other two-power creature. Even though a Serpent Skin might kill it off, the bounce ability will still send the enchantment to the graveyard like any normal pump spell. It doesn’t quite handle the best of the best creatures, but this should be a tolerable substitute for River Kaijin when necessary. It’s uncommon, but no blue Betrayers common can even try to fill that void as well as this.

In addition, more “expendable” creatures like Devoted Retainer, Akki Raider, or Humble Budoka will serve a defense-oriented deck well. They’re little dudes that you might not be incredibly fond of but can get in the way like pros, trading with a trick or even just forcing it onto the board while preventing any Ninja shenanigans. At the very least, they can block a Ninja a turn later, preventing it from doing any more dirty work. Just accepting beats while waiting to play out more expensive cards can now have more unfortunate consequences; one has to think more about getting a body out there to stop an opponent from just completely overwhelming you with extra cards and such.

Of course, this is a lesson that can be learned with or without Ninjutsu involved; lots of players who missed their third land drop learned it back in Onslaught.

On balance, while the threat of being slammed by a Ninja might be noticeable, the threat of being slammed hard will not be. None of the common effects will completely swing the game – although if you are unfortunate enough to be on the wrong end of a Throat Slitter, bad times will be had. (By you, not your opponent.) However, unless you’ve already seen the card, don’t freak yourself out about it; the potential for death by ultra-sneaky rat isn’t incredibly high. As such, concern over a possible Ninja shouldn’t factor too greatly into your contemplations of blocking (or not) – just like Skirk Commando alone wasn’t nearly enough to make people block every incoming morph, neither should these guys cause you to unnecessarily throw your men into the path of oncoming attackers.

So now that you have this knowledge about the extreme dangers of Ninja (or at least the lack thereof), go forth and make use of it. Hopefully what you’ve read will be helpful, and if not, at least remember to have fun out there. You’re playing with Ninja, after all – and if you can’t have fun with Ninja, when can you?

Signing off,

Andy Clautice

clauticea at kenyon dot edu