Before we get going, I have a confession. The preparation for this article didn’t exactly take me where I thought it would. I originally set out to do what many others were also trying: put together a respectable Ninja deck for Kamigawa block. I’d already experimented with a few of them in Standard with pleasant results, so I figured they could work out fairly well in the closer confines of their home block. I wrote up decklists and played games, and the Ninja actually fared pretty well, but I made a discovery (well, more of a realization) that led me down a different path.
This is one of the last builds for my Ninja-related efforts:
4 Teardrop Kami
4 Soratami Cloudskater
3 Mistblade Shinobi
4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
2 Throat Slitter
3 Higure the Still Wind
4 Consuming Vortex
4 Toils of Night and Day
2 Phantom Wings
4 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
4 Tendo Ice Bridge
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
When it’s really clicking, it’s extremely effective. The Phantom Wings were a late find – they can act as Vortexes five and six or provide permanent evasion that can save a Ninja should removal get pointed its way. Although I’ve had decent experiences with them in Limited, I wasn’t sure they could make the leap, but they turned out fine. Without cheap rats to piggyback the Ninja on, the deck started mono-Blue; I was trying to force Ninja through with things like Eye of Nowhere and Psychic Puppetry, but I eventually moved back into Black for some permanent removal and would probably have continued in that fashion. Everything else is pretty standard stuff, but somewhere in the middle of all the Sosuke’s Summonses and Soilshapers, I realized a very simple truth.
Umezawa’s Jitte is insaaaaane.
I know. It’s not exactly a revelation to set the world ablaze, but it wasn’t until I consciously realized that even in the Ninja deck, it was still better than the Ninja equipment that it truly sunk in. Of course, anyone who’s put a pair of counters on the thing is well aware of how it can swing games. Suddenly, the equipped creature plays much bigger than it is and any small dudes on the other side of the table are dead men walking. Even if you can do nothing else, extra life points are always beneficial and can help pull a near-impossible game back from the brink. It slices, it dices, it orders you pizza and makes your bed. There’s very little it can’t do – it’s almost Skullclamp-esque in that it can turn almost any generic creature deck into a force to be reckoned with.
Granted, it doesn’t possess the combo potential that the ‘Clamp brought with it, nor is it as uncontrollable or inexpensive: you can’t get the benefits just by equipping it and your opponent has many more chances to trip it up. Creatures can be tapped or killed before getting into combat and if either the creature itself or the creature it’s trying to damage should leave play before damage resolves, no counters are gained. As a powerful and colorless card, it’s inevitable that it will be seen in many, many decklists, but it acts as removal for itself and props up weenie decks, the very archetype it most threatens. Whether these are the traits of a very powerful but intricately balanced card or the next victim to be laid upon the banning block remains to be seen, but in the meantime, I decided to squeeze as much juice out of it as I could.
I started fresh, this time building a deck based on the single goal of Jitte Advantage. The plan was simple: find a Jitte and put it to work. If my opponent was playing it also, I wanted to have one working more often than them, using whatever means necessary. As a certain other writer might put it, the Jitte can be a very unfair card, so this is an effort to be the…um… unfairest.
These are the results:
4 Ishi-Ishi, Akki Crackshot
4 Hearth Kami
2 Ronin Houndmaster
4 Brothers Yamazaki
3 Fumiko the Lowblood
3 Kumano, Master Yamabushi
3 Godo, Bandit Warlord
4 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Tenza, Godo’s Maul
4 Honor-Worn Shaku
4 Glacial Ray
1 Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep
Godo was the obvious first inclusion, as he’s the only card in Kamigawa block that can directly fetch a Jitte, plus he gives you the chance to accumulate four counters per turn (or six with blocking!), but let’s face it: the man is expensive. Six mana isn’t exactly a picnic in a deck without Kodama’s Reach or Sakura-Tribe Elder, and three copies is pushing things as it is. Of course, by turn 6, I might even already have a Jitte running or (perish the thought!) have lost them all to a Splinter, and so as an alternative search target, there is one copy of Tenza, Godo’s Maul be available to hand. This also wins many style points, for those keeping score at home.
It was about here that the deck practically started building itself. The cards were hinting at me, telling me what to include next. I looked at Godo. He liked samurai. I looked at Tenza. It liked legendary creatures. Maybe… maybe, I thought, I should play with… hold on, it was coming, I could feel it… I should play with legendary samurai! Ingenious! And you say Red has very playable legendary samurai? Brilliant! Enter Fumiko the Lowblood and the Brothers Yamazaki! Fumiko can make things very ugly by forcing your opponent’s army of snakes or foxes to dash itself upon the rocks of your samurai warriors while helping a Jitte accumulate even more counters, or simply attack with the threat of becoming enormous should anyone get in her way. The Brothers allow for some truly incredible beatings through the midgame if they’re drawn in a pair, and even when you’ve only got one, it’s still a serviceable creature that curves right into a turn 4 Jitte or Tenza plus equip.
Here’s also as good as anywhere to note the Ronin Houndmasters. These guys are certainly fine and play well in the Samurai theme (such as it is), and are notable for being the only creatures with combat toughness of more than two for three mana or less. Everything else short of the more expensive legends can only hope to trade with Isamaru. The haste is also a factor at times, especially when swooping in and grabbing a Jitte for that first vital hit.
Still, I wasn’t really thrilled about sitting around until turn 6 to play Godo, so I wanted something to speed things up. Sadly, the mana acceleration cards available to Red in the Kamigawa block (Desperate Ritual and Mana Seism) cost more card advantage than I’m willing to give up and there was only one artifact, Honor-Worn Shaku.
I’ll admit that the paddle doesn’t necessarily look great on paper, but it has a fine home here. Between creatures and artifacts, the deck runs twenty-two legendary permanents, some of which certainly won’t be doing anything else with their untapped selves. Giving equipment the ability to tap for mana in a deck that desperately wants to get equipment into play anyway has a certain panache, and it provided yet another reason to use legendary creatures that would play well with Tenza, should the opportunity arise. I mean, Kumano, Master Yamabushi is hard to turn away in any case, but here’s a card that accelerates into him on turn four and can turn him into a mana for his ability at the end of an opponent’s turn (even when he’s still summoning-sick).
The Shaku also made it even easier to include Ishi-Ishi, Akki Crackshot, a cheap little goblin that has the possibility to win a game single-handedly against the right opponents. At the very minimum, most of the removal cards that can take him out – Glacial Ray, Horobi’s Whisper and Rend Flesh, for example – now come with an additional price of two life. G/R Spiritcraft decks take a pounding if they can’t get rid of him quickly and almost every deck plays at least something that will trigger him. I mean, look at both of the decks in this article: they both have a fleshy creature theme, but both still play at least eight cards that trigger the Lover of Goats.
When his triggered ability isn’t a major factor (and even when it is), the Shaku still lets him tap for mana, a definite boon to this mana-hungry deck. That extra mana can enable some remarkably explosive stuff. Play an Ishi-Ishi on turn 2 followed by a Shaku on turn 3 and you can immediately untap it once to play a Jitte. On your fourth turn, you can untap the paddle with the Jitte to cast Godo and fetch Tenza, both of which can untap it again. That mana allows you to equip the Jitte to Ishi-Ishi and swing for two counters or just drop Tenza on him and smash for four. It’s pretty wild stuff, and though that is a perfect draw, you still occasionally find yourself playing two creatures and double-equipping all in one turn.
So all of this is great for finding and using my own Jittes, but it’s important to also obstruct my opponent from making any use of one, should they get it into play. Hearth Kami fits the bill excellently and helps fill out the bottom of the mana curve, making for a quick four-of, and Glacial Rays can cut down opposing Jitte-bearers, occasionally even with some splicing.
To be entirely truthful, though, while the deck did start with Glacial Rays in it, they were briefly removed. Looking back, it wasn’t my proudest moment, but I’d just gone mad with the thoughts of rampant legenditude (legendiosity?). There was a Konda’s Banner and an Oathkeeper, Takeno’s Daisho involved, and somehow some Hondens of Infinite Rage snuck in, but some quick thumpings at the hands of evasive Ninja (see the decklist above) that I suddenly couldn’t get rid of brought me back to my senses. I do sort of wish that the Banner could still make the deck; most of the creatures are Humans, so +2/+2 bonuses across the board were far from rare. Even Hearth Kami and Ishi-Ishi got a little boost, and another two-mana legendary artifact could sometimes really help with Shaku acceleration. I just can’t imagine what I would cut, though, especially since it only starts really kicking in when you have three or more creatures out.
The lands are straightforward, but the ubiquitous on-color legendary land actually gets a lot of mileage here. With seventeen potential targets, that first strike can come in very handy.
The upsides of this deck are many: you can overwhelm an opponent by accumulating Jitte counters, by throwing Tenza on a legend, by blasting their team away with Kumano, by dropping a pair of Brothers and turning them sideways, by massacring an ill-advised, Fumiko-induced alpha strike, by splicing several Glacial Rays, et cetera ad nauseum. Pretty much any card in the deck can act as the centerpiece of a thrashing, and although the Jitte is the focus, it’s not absolutely necessary. Sometimes you can just curve out like a red beatdown deck and use a Ray or two to clear your path and other times you’ll go off combo-style with a Shaku, dropping your entire hand on the table on turn four.
Of course, there are also downsides. The one thing I dislike the most about this deck is that it has nothing to promote consistency. No Serum Visions, no Night’s Whisper, nothing except a six mana creature that can only find one of two cards. It’s not like there are a lot of options, either; there’s Sensei’s Diving Top, but without a decent number of shuffle effects, it’s not worth the space or the mana. In the end, you’re living off the top card, and while that isn’t always a killer, it just leaves me slightly unsettled. The mana is also awkward; unless you have a Shaku running, you’re probably only playing one spell per turn though the midgame or else you’re just fiddling with equip costs.
The good news is that there aren’t many decks that can smash your face if you take a few turns to set up. The fastest damage output in block probably comes from G/R decks with their Lava Spikes and Soilshapers, and even they can’t kill you before turn 5 or 6 if you put up some resistance. White Weenie decks are also popular and have the tools to really put you on the ropes, even if they don’t goldfish quite as quickly, but Glacial Rays are quite helpful in both cases. (More on matchups below.) Once you’re established, even if you’ve taken a bit of a pounding, the Jitte can swoop in to slay whatever your opponent has been bashing you with and help you recover some lost life points for insurance, should you so desire. Having lots of creatures also makes it impossible for your opponent to take down Fumiko the Lowblood in combat while she helps pick apart their army.
I should note that this is a very interactive deck (a vague term that is used here in the same sense that Mike Flores used it to talk about U/G Tradewind). It allows, no, it requires you to match right up against your opponent’s cards, be it in combat, in determining the best use of a Jitte or in figuring out how to survive a weenie rush before you can take control with Kumano. To be very blunt, don’t expect to get the most out of this deck unless you are a good player. When you sometimes only get to play one spell a turn, you need to make it count. If you can correct manipulate all your pieces, this deck allows you to take down almost any opposing forces, but if you can’t achieve the “if,” you can easily come up short.
As such, there aren’t many definite rules to playing the deck that I can offer you. One is that you should usually play Honor-Worn Shaku at the first available opportunity as it really opens things up and improves the flow of the rest of the deck, but even this rule can be broken if your hand is exceptionally mana-heavy and doesn’t have anything to accelerate out. Another is that you should be willing to sometimes send creatures in kamikaze-style just to get the first counters on a Jitte because it can be that important, but that’s less of a rule than a reminder.
I suppose should probably also talk a little about matchups somewhere around here. There are probably a lot of block decks that have yet to be discovered, but there are certainly a few that will be major contenders. White Weenies, Black Control, Shrines, U/R Splice, and G/R Spiritcraft decks will all be around in some quantity or other, so I’ll take a quick peek at each of these. Special note will be given to how important Jitte will be against each deck. Of course, these decks tend to vary (sometimes wildly) in their exact contents, so as always, “your mileage may vary” (read as: “if you disagree with or experience something different from anything that comes after this, it is entirely due to metagame differences and is therefore not my fault”).
Jitte effectiveness: high
I’ve encountered two distinct breeds of White Weenie so far: Samurai-centric decks that ramps up into Nagao, Bound by Honor (Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar wrote a great series of articles about one like this) and a more “White Deck Wins”-flavored number that just uses all the best critters it can find. The latter tends to use a lot of legendary men like Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, which sometimes pull it into running Day of Destiny, which sadly does not affect your legendary creatures and so makes things more difficult. There are even builds that stick to Foxes in order to make good use of Patron of the Kitsune, which is hard to deal with if you don’t have any equipment out. Eight-and-a-Half-Tails is not a major problem because you have many ways to kill creatures at instant speed, but if he is out with Day of Destiny in play, you are in trouble. They, however, have equal amounts of difficulty with Kumano, Master Yamabushi.
Both styles of deck have a much lower curve than you do and play Bushido creatures that are more likely to survive in fights, but Jitte is extremely helpful. It can pump your guys up for combat or assist Glacial Rays in killing off strays that you don’t have a body to block; Rays give you an advantage, as they’re a luxury not afforded to mono-White decks, but Shining Shoal can throw a monkey wrench into things. Be aware of Blessed Breath – by using it to prevent combat damage, your opponent can stop your Jitte from gaining counters. Also be aware that this is something Shining Shoal can’t do, although that card presents plenty of problems of its own. It should go without saying that if your opponent gets a Jitte online, you’re in trouble, so don’t let it happen if possible.
Your win percentage can be anywhere on the chart depending on the actual contents of their deck. Blessed Breath tilts the balance in their direction while Lantern Kami is extremely underwhelming. Nagao is quite frightening, but Kentaro is significantly less so. At worst, you can still be competitive while at best you’ll just walk all over them, so you do get the lion’s share of the victories.
Jitte effectiveness: low
Mono-Black control builds seem to be gaining a lot of popularity, which is unsurprising considering the phenomenal quality of Black removal in this block. Horobi’s Whisper, Sickening Shoal, the Rends, Hero’s Demise, Hideous Laughter and Eradicate are all great choices, and Yukora the Prisoner and Kokusho make excellent beaters. Now, while those two creatures can be handled, all that removal kind of… well.. can’t. I mean, seriously: if you were going to build a deck specifically to beat a deck that focused on midrange-to-expensive legendary creatures and equipment, what would you put in it? It’s hard to keep a guy on the board long enough to suit him up and swing a few times, and that makes it hard to win. The more of the removal listed above they pack, the worse your chances are.
Fortunately, while game one could reasonably apply for government classification as a disaster area, you have a great sideboard option. In particular, I ended up adding 3 Genju of the Spires to the ‘board for just this matchup (and if you read my Rats article, you know how I hate dedicated sideboard slots). I might even go to four to increase the chances of landing one before being Extracted. Once you have these online, you have a good chance of just out-Mountaining the mono-Black player; while they probably have more removal than you have creatures, they aren’t likely to have more than you have creatures and lands. This can be harder if they also run Genju of the Fens, but equipment can give you the edge in the land war. It’s still not a very good matchup, but the Genju does provide some light at the end of the long, black tunnel.
There are also some Green/Black mixes that forego some of the removal listed above for quality mana acceleration and sometimes more beef like Kodoma of the North Tree and Iwamori of the Open Fist. These make for a much better matchup as you have a reasonable chance of actually landing a punch, which can make a big difference. The mana acceleration does mean that you may have to attempt to race (or at least keep pace), so you’ll sometimes find yourself walking into Hideous Laughter, but that’s a chance you have to take. If nothing else, at least remember to use Kumano to remove Kokusho and Genju-ed Forests from the game.
Jitte effectiveness: moderate
Obviously, a deck based on enchantments is unlikely to feature equipment, so you get to rule the table in that regard. Here’s some more good news: one creature with a Jitte can overcome most pairs of Shrines. Two counters per turn gives you enough to kill two tokens made by Honden of Life’s Web or cancel out the four life points gained from a Honden of Cleansing Fire. One counter circumvents a shock from Honden of Infinite Rage. Honden of Night’s Reach isn’t really a big deal as you tend to deploy your hand as quickly as possible anyway, and although it provides lots of cards (and possibly more Shrines), Honden of Seeing Winds doesn’t stop you from beating down. Two Shrines, whatever their configuration, is pretty manageable if you can keep the pressure on.
Three, however, is much trickier. It’s probably best to kill your opponent before this happens, but this deck can beat three Shrines. That, however, generally involves an active Godo, which in turn means some sort of active equipment to protect him from Honden of Infinite Rage. Also, if your shriney opponent fires off a Gifts Ungiven for R/G/W/U Hondens, you should always give them the White one, and usually the Green one (which can be overcome by any of Jitte, Tenza or Kumano) as well. However, use your discretion based on your hand; lots of beatdown potential means you can kill them before the blue one kicks in while big beaters like Godo or a pair of Brothers can make a Red one managable.
Jitte effectiveness: low
Splice decks use Arcane spells. Ishi-Ishi hates Arcane spells. Ishi-Ishi hates splice decks. Hate, Ishi-Ishi, hate. Good Ishi-Ishi.
The little Goblin is obviously a major factor here, certainly much more so than Jittes. Against a deck that plays any or all of Psychic Puppetry, Consuming Vortex and Glacial Ray you won’t get many counters. Even if you do, it’s not as if they’ll have creatures for you to kill (although some do feature The Unspeakable or other such monstrosities). Your non-combat damage sources (Ishi-Ishi and Kumano) and creatures that survive Glacial Ray (Kumano and Godo) are your major players here. They run more card drawing than you (i.e., any at all), so you will probably run out of creatures before they run out of Puppetries or build up to a lethal Ire of Kaminari.
Jitte effectiveness: high
I already alluded to this matchup a little above: a Jitte will let you stabilize safely, although you may do so at a low life total due to very aggressive effects. If you can’t find one, you’ll have to play very defensively to keep your life total up. If you can’t make any resistance at all, you’ll need to mulligan, because these decks are capable of killing as quickly as turn four. Glacial Ray helps a lot by picking off Soilshaper, and if you live long enough to weather the initial splice-storm, you’ll be in good shape. Watch out for Kodoma of the South Tree, though – he’s a bad mamma-jamma and can swing a game you thought you had under control back out of reach. Actually, it’s hard to “watch out” for him, as he’ll probably be very prominent once summoned, so I guess the advice is actually “try to kill him as soon as you can,” which turns out not to be too difficult unless they’ve saved a Kodama’s Might explicitly for saving him (in which case you still save several points of damage).
There are probably more decks out there that I haven’t mentioned – the block metagame is far from determined though it seems to still be settling down. The best deck might be one that we still don’t know anything about, which is at least a refreshing change of pace. For other decks, the guidelines seen above hold generally true – good against beatdown, less so against control, but still competitive unless they’ve completely sold out on removal and disruption.
Still, if I could alter one thing in this deck, it would probably be to find some more early plays. Sadly, the offerings of Kamigawa Red only go so far, and adding another color brings its own set of problems that aren’t worth the trouble. Umezawa’s Jitte can make up for all but the most savage of early beatings, so a more aggressive mana curve is more of a desire and less of a necessity. It would just be nice to not stabilize at five (or two) quite as often.
I’m fumbling for a conclusion here, so I’ll just leave it at this: if you enjoy smashing with insane equipments, this is the way to do it, so get your kicks in now… while they’re still legal.
clauticea at kenyon dot edu