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Ninjutsu: From Samurai to Ninja

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The letter W!hoah. Well that's weird. How did I end up on Monday all of a sudden? And wasn't "Building On A Budget," like, three days ago? And wasn't the topic Ninja decks?

It all started with my "Preconstructing Constructed" experiment, many moons ago. My four-part deckbuilding adventure felt a little out of scope for a dedicated Magic Online column, but I was enamored with the idea of taking a preconstructed deck and slowly transforming it into a reasonable deck. Scott Johns gave me some latitude to pursue the idea, and away I went to build a Kamigawa Block Samurai deck. When I had finished, I reflected that it was some of the most fun I've had, both playing and writing, in years.

Apparently, you all liked my experiment too. The Message Boards were alive with discussion throughout the four weeks. I received a mountain of universally-positive e-mail. When I ran a poll afterwards, I received these results:

How often should Jay do these "preconstructing constructed" experiments?
Do it again! Right now! 2828 55.8%
Once a set seems about right. 1646 32.5%
Once or twice a year seems about right. 297 5.9%
Please don't ever do this again. 297 5.9%
Total 5068 100.0%

So... I wrote to Scott. I told him that if he ever decided to add a column that focused on doing these slow, deckbuilding evolutions, that I was his man. Okay, I sort of pleaded with him. I really, really wanted to do more precon experiments.

Then Nate Heiss got his job at Wizards.

Then Nate decided to hang up his Building on a Budget sneakers.

Then Scott called me.

And here I am.

(A quick note: for the rest of the info on the magicthegathering.com scheduling changes as well as the future of Into The Aether, don't miss Scott's feature article this week, "Past, Present, Future".)

The New "Building On A Budget"

Nate was a machine. He pumped out a budget deck per week for almost two years. Those of you familiar with the column know that Nate also had a locked-in formula for his column. The decks were always thirty tickets or less on Magic Online. One deck per week. Same consistent structure to each article. A flippin' machine!

"There will be a lot more to this column than watching decks evolve."

I am no machine. The core of this column will still be predictable, but this time around I'll often be taking a Magic preconstructed deck and evolving it into a respectable deck (details below). Most of the time, I will be embroiled in this sort of preconstructed morph-o-rama exploration. Usually these explorations will take three weeks, but sometimes they'll be shorter and sometimes longer depending on the deck.

I won't only be evolving preconstructed decks from the new set, though. Older preconstructed decks are also fair game. So are other sorts of decks, including starting from a "bad rare" or some other nucleus. I'll also consider making decks for formats like Prismatic, Singleton, or multiplayer.

In addition, there will be a lot more to this column than watching decks evolve. I plan on spanning the broad topic of budget deckbuilding as much as possible. Expect me to try out "Top 10" lists of commons and uncommons, discuss analogues for hard-to-find rares, and translate tournament-winning decks into budget decks, for example.

Which is all to say that if you are on a tight budget, enjoy budget-minded deckbuilding, or just fancy yourself a deckbuilding genius, I hope to constantly give you reasons to read the "other column" on Mondays. Just keep piping up on the Message Boards to let me know what you think, and I'll adjust accordingly.

The Business of Evolving Preconstructed Decks

At first glance, the idea of revolving a column around preconstructed decks' evolution sounds random. I have found two things to be true, however. First, a lot of players--especially those on a tight budget or just starting out--use preconstructed decks as the basis for their constructed decks. I sort of knew this on instinct, but didn't know the full extent until I had an Internet column and received a flood of e-mail on the topic. Aaron talked about preconstructed decks a while ago, and I think his article provides a good window into both why Wizards makes preconstructed decks in the first place and also their use as doorways into the world of constructed Magic.

The second thing I've found is that watching a "bad" deck slowly evolve into a "good" (or at the very least "fun") deck is something lots of people enjoy. For newer players, it's useful to see someone with deckbuilding experience articulate his choices at each step of the journey. Longtime players, meanwhile, get to "play along at home" and be armchair deck doctors. My hope is that each week you will log onto the Message Boards to pipe up with your opinions about the choices I make, offer suggestions, and argue over your own builds of the deck, and I don't think it will surprise you that I'll also be providing plenty of chances to influence the column with polls as well.

So, that's why I get so excited about evolving preconstructed decks. How I do it is a different matter entirely. I have adopted a set of Guidelines that I use to frame these articles. I call them "guidelines" instead of "rules" because I will almost always violate them at some point in the process. They're simply here to remind me (and you) to go slow and enjoy the ride.

The Guidelines

  1. Start with a preconstructed deck, unedited, and play it.
  2. Don't make changes until playing the deck in at least five games.
  3. Change no more than five cards at a time.
  4. Build a respectable deck that's fun to play.
  5. Build an affordable deck.

Simple enough, right? Let's get started to see how it works in action!

Ninjutsu First-Takes

Here are the poll results from my last Into The Aether article:

Poll #1: Which deck is Jay going to play and change?
Ninjutsu 1905 32.5%
Dark Devotion 1453 24.8%
Rats' Nest 1356 23.1%
Spiritcraft 1145 19.5%
Total 5859 100.0%

Poll #2: For which format will Jay be building his deck?
Kamigawa Block Constructed 2597 50.0%
Standard 2597 50.0%
Total 5194 100.0%

Ninjutsu by a landslide and Standard by a hair! [Editor’s note: When we run polls like this we agree on a certain time to take results so that we can allow enough time for the writer to get the article done. When the time came to get the results for this one to Jay it was a mere .4% lead for Standard. Incredibly, when we took the final results today to put the article into the server we had what we believe is the first tie on any magicthegathering.com poll ever!]

Surely it's my job to be happy no matter what the results, but in this case I'm honestly thrilled. When I voted (and yes, I sometimes vote in my own polls), these were the two I voted for. Why? Well, I'm a sucker for "blue weenie" decks (that is, blue decks that rely on small, quick creatures) and have been itching to explore the new Standard.

The only potentially screwy thing about this result is that Nate ended his "Building on a Budget" reign with a Ninja deck, which makes for a sort of awkward transition. In looking at Nate's approach, though, and comparing it with the starting Ninjutsu decklist, I'm confident that the Ninja deck I'll create will be markedly different from Nate's. The most obvious difference is that Nate's deck is Blue/Black whereas Ninjutsu is mono-blue, and I think this difference alone will lead to profound distinctions. We'll see, I suppose, in a week or two.

Here is the Ninjutsu decklist as I got it from the Magic Online store, straight out of the box, separated by land, creatures and non-creatures:

Like all preconstructed decklists, you're sure to see aspects of this deck that are pretty neat and some that are frankly hideous. As a rule, preconstructed decks tend to be inconsistent, underpowered, and unfocused compared to most constructed decks, and nothing about the Ninjutsu decklist tells me it's different from its peers. That said, here are some eyeballed first impressions:

1) Deck Themes: One of the first things I do when looking at a decklist is figure out the major and minor themes of the deck. For me, each of the themes is pulling the decklist in a particular direction (often in conflict with the other themes), which represents a viable way to move the deck when making changes.

For Ninjutsu, I see the themes as...

  • Major theme: Ninja. Using the mechanic ninjutsu to sneak through Ninja for some cool effect (bouncing creatures, drawing cards, looking at an opponent's hand, and finding more Ninja). Shuriken is also a card that benefits from the presence of Ninja in the decklist.
  • Major theme: Weenies. This is similar to Ninja, but different insofar as the deck cares less about the creature type or mechanics and more about casting quick creatures to deal damage and win the game. Ronin Warclub wouldn't be in the deck without this theme.
  • Major theme: Unblockability. This shows up both directly (Minamo Sightbender, Field of Reality, Soratami Mirror-Guard) and through other means (tapping potential blockers and flying creatures being the main ones).
  • Minor theme: Defense. The tapping of things like Teardrop Kami and Mystic Restraints counts towards defense, but I'm particularly looking at the low-power, high-toughness blockers like Kaijin of the Vanishing Touch, River Kaijin, and Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar here.
  • Minor theme: Control. There are two counterspells (Hinder, Minamo's Meddling), which adds to the defensive tapping and bouncing spells to make the deck somewhat more control-oriented than your average weenie deck.
  • A few truly minor themes include flipping Student of Elements, returning your own creatures to hand (though with no comes-into-play effects to speak of), and Soratami returning-land stuff. These are background themes, though, and fairly incidental.

The good news is that these themes aren't in horrible conflict with one another. "Defense" runs a little counter to a "weenie" and/or "unblockability" deck, and there are some identity issues about whether this deck is truly a Ninja deck or simply a Kamigawa-focused weenie deck. All in all, though, not terrible issues to work through.

2) Mana: As far as I can tell without playing it, the deck is in great shape with regards to mana. Being one color helps a lot, as does having the typical-for-a-constructed-deck twenty-four land. There are also plenty of quick, low-cost cards, with only one card costing over four mana (I'm counting Higure as costing 2 ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana). Preconstructed decks are often too slow to compete with constructed decks, but I'm not sure that's the primary problem in Ninjutsu.

3) Consistency: There isn't a single four-of card in the deck, which is particularly troublesome for a deck trying to establish itself in the first few turns. There are also lots of one- and two-ofs in the decklist with very little card-drawing and only one tutoring effect (Higure). In other words: It's a deck that can benefit from a lot more consistency.

4) Power: Higure is good, as are most of the blue Ninja as long as they have a way to deal combat damage. Genju of the Falls, Shuriken, and Hinder are all quality uncommons. A lot of the support cards seem pretty underpowered, though, such as Field of Reality, Kaijin of the Vanishing Touch, and Lifted By Clouds. That's typically what you get in preconstructed decks: A mix of good and not-so-good cards with similar themes.

5) Fun: I think ninjutsu is a mechanic that lends itself to fun, partly because it involves bluffing and partly because of flavorful goodness. Personally, I also find blue weenie decks terrific fun because blue is a color not known for its lethal speed. As a result, blue weenie decks usually have to rely on more tricks to survive than other colors and overall have a sort of underdog feel to them. Which is to say that I don't see an immediate need to drift away from the deck's major themes as I've outlined them above.

I think that's probably enough armchair theorizing for now. Let's see how the thing plays out of the box, shall we?

Playing Preconstructed

I'm going to keep my game logs brief, but I want you to get a sense for a) what cards are winning me games, b) what cards are ineffectual, c) what sort of decks I'm facing (and thus need to prepare for), d) whether I'm winning/losing by a big or small margin, and e) why I'm winning/losing my games. All of this information should help you evaluate whether the changes I'm making to the deck are worthy or not. Also, I'll only use my opponents' Magic Online names if I run into a particularly cool deck or my opponent makes a particularly cool play. In the future, I hope this is incentive to hunt me down online and play my evolving deck.

Here we go...

Game 1: Red/Black Aggro

I made the mistake of not advertising a post-Banned list Standard game, so when my opponent played Great Furnace and Vault of Whispers in his first two turns, I thought "Ugh... Affinity." Turns out he was a bit more creative than I thought, using Atogs, Slith Firewalkers, Loxodon Warhammer, and such to bring the beatdown. I had a dream beginning: First-turn Teardrop Kami, second-turn Ninja of the Deep Hours, and I was off to the races. I used Shuriken on his Atog to eat up some of his lands, and found Phantom Wings to protect my Ninja. On the sixth turn I played Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar, which in combination with the Deep Hours was incredible. I cycled through the majority of my deck and won at eighteen life, countering and tapping his creatures when needed. The only trouble was that until my last turn, I only found one Ninja amidst a sea of Spirits and Moonfolk.

Game 2: Blue/Black/Red Spirits

I don't know why the blue and red were in my opponent's deck, honestly, because all I saw were black-based Spirits like Wicked Akuba and Scuttling Death, along with creature removal like Dark Banishing. I played a second-turn Student of Elements, snuck Ninja of the Deep Hours through on Turn 3, and starting drawing two cards a turn. When he had a blocker, I replayed my Student along with Phantom Wings to give my Ninja flying. Both Genju of the Falls followed to eat away at my opponent's life. I won the game at sixteen life, still only seeing my one (now favorite) Ninja.

Game 3: Green/White Control

My opponent played Forest, Traproot Kami, which had me worried. When he followed that up with Plains, Hankyu I was really worried. But luckily for me, he never drew another land. My Soratami Cloudskater flew through to pop Mistblade Shinobi into play, and after that a series of quick fliers started eating into his life. When I played Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar my opponent conceded, still at two land.

Okay, 3-0 with a preconstructed deck. It's as weird as me showing up on Monday!

Game 4: Blue/Red Spirit/Arcane

Ah, back to reality. The good news is that I had a River Kaijin which once again snuck a Ninja of the Deep Hours into play. The bad news is that my Ninja only got in one hit before dying to Glacial Ray. His Hearth Kami got in a few hits before killing my Ronin Warclub, then he snuck his own Ninja of the Deep Hours into play. I put Mystic Restraints on his Ninja, but his combination of bounce and burn kept my creatures off the board and killed me when I tapped out to play Tomorrow, Azami's Familiar. My opponent ended the game at thirteen life.

Game 5: Monoblack Death Pit Offering

My opponent, Nain Oakenshield, had a cool deck based around Death Pit Offering, comes-into-play creatures like Nekrataal, and reanimation like Raise Dead. He also had some nice Offering compliments like Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang. I had the dream Teardrop Kami-Ninja of the Deep Hours draw, and followed that up by protecting my Ninja with Phantom Wings. Eventually my opponent played Death Pit Offering, Raising his Nekrataal. I Hindered his creature, which allowed me to keep attacking, drawing cards, and eating into his life. Ronin Warclub sped up the carnage, and I ended the game with a full hand and twenty life.

Let's not get too excited just yet. 4-1 is a fun start, but the decks I played were highly experimental, and I lost to the one more "polished" deck I faced. Still, here are some observations from my initial games:

  • A quick Ninja of the Deep Hours is faboo.
  • I'm unusually lucky at drawing Ninja of the Deep Hours and a cheap, unblocked creature.
  • Mystic Restraints is surprisingly good at shutting down blockers, though expensive to cast (and I didn't face any decks with enchantment removal).
  • Countermagic saves my tail once I've gotten off to a fast start.
  • I want more Ninjas.
  • I want better two-drop creatures and more one-drop creatures.

With these observations in mind, let's make some changes...

Must... Have... Ninja!

Sometimes I see cards I want out of the deck and look for replacements. Sometimes I see cards I want into the deck and look for what to drop in order to make room. After five early games, all I can think is that I want more Ninja in my Ninja deck.

IN: 1 Ninja of the Deep Hours

I'm sure Higure, the Still Wind is spiffy, but right now I can't think of a better Ninja than this guy. So far I've been lucky to draw one of my three copies early in the game, but I definitely, positively want to max out on how many Ninja of the Deep Hours I play.

IN: 1 Mistblade Shinobi

He's not nearly as outstanding as his bigger brother, and once he's in play he looks really anemic as a 1/1. But there aren't many Ninja available for a mono-blue deck, and sometimes he is perfect for messing up your opponent's game plan. His ninjutsu cost is as low as it gets, too, which is nice.

IN: 1 Walker of Secret Ways

I have only drawn one Walker of Secret Ways and never played it, so I am not ready to say it's either terrific or useless yet. It has a low ninjutsu cost and is a Ninja, which is all I'm looking for at this point. Nate tells me it is invaluable, too. Having two in the deck lets me draw it often enough to make a judgment about whether it stays long-term or not. Besides, eleven Ninja in the deck now makes me feel like I'm starting to get into the minimum number I'd want for a Ninja deck.

That's three Ninja into the deck. What comes out to make room?

OUT: 1 Field of Reality

Field of Reality is the only card in the deck that overwhelms me with its awfulness. In Kamigawa Block, being unblockable by Spirits may come in handy, but even then I'm not sure that it's worth losing card advantage for a mediocre effect. If Field of Reality were a cheap, arcane sorcery with splice I might see its use in Kamigawa Block, but even that's stretching my imagination. In Standard, as an Enchant Creature card, it's completely out of place.

OUT: 1 Lifted By Clouds

Lifted By Clouds suffers in a deck with few other arcane cards on which to splice it. Even in an Arcane deck, though, it probably does too little for the cost. Compare Lifted By Clouds to Phantom Wings, which not only permanently gives flying but can also save your creature or remove an opposing blocker in a pinch. Heck, I'm not even sure that I'll keep Phantom Wings all that long, so Lifted By Clouds is outta here.

OUT: 2 Student of Elements

Student of Elements is a neat idea for this deck, since giving all of my Ninjas flying surely makes them better. The problem is that there are too few ways to make it flip in this deck and too few non-flying creatures to take advantage of a Levitation-like card. Also, Tobita, Master of Winds is not a card you want to return to your hand for a Ninja, and putting Phantom Wings on Student of Elements just seems somehow wrong. Dropping Lifted By Clouds just adds to the many reasons why Student of Elements must go. I'm a fan of this card in general since I think it presents some fun deckbuilding challenges, but it's not right for this deck.

IN: 1 Teardrop Kami

Since I managed to drop four cards, that leaves me with one extra addition. The product insert tells me that I should add more Teardrop Kami if given the chance, so more Teardrop Kami I shall add. Blue has almost no one-cost weenies, and this card is far superior to both Fugitive Wizard and Wandering Ones. I imagine I'll push the total number up to four at some point in order to maximize my chances at getting a second-turn Ninja of the Deep Hours, but we'll see.

So, that leaves us here:

Don't Defend. Counter.

I have some time to play some more games before my first Building On A Budget deadline, so...

Game 6: White/Blue/Green... Something

I'm not sure what my opponent was up to, but I felt like I was a turn or two away from some big combo death. He played Kodama's Reach after Journey of Discovery after Rampant Growth. I thought maybe it was a Dampen Thought deck when he used Wrath of God to clear away my Mistblade Shinobi (equipped with Ronin Warclub), but then he played Glorious Anthem. Hm. Maybe a Rude Awakening deck? I'm not sure. Anyway, another Shinobi and a Genju of the Falls finished him off before he ever played an offensive-minded spell.

Game 7: Mono-red Crucible of Worlds deck

My opponent was AtlantaHokie888 and he was sporting one of the cooler decks I've seen in a while. His deck had Frostling, Shock, Magma Jet and some other burn to go along with Crucible of Worlds, Akki Raider, Gods' Eye, Gate to the Reikai, Lightning Greaves, and--the kicker--Cosmic Larva. He drew too much land, though, while I had a Genju of the Falls going with Kaijin of the Vanishing Touch back for defense. Eventually Soratami Mirror-Guard helped out on offense while River Kaijin helped out on defense. I used Phantom Wings and Mystic Restraints to handle Cosmic Larva and Hindered a Crucible of Worlds. That was game, with me at thirteen life.

Game 8: Monogreen Tooth and Nail

My opponent used Sylvan Scrying to quickly assemble all three Urza lands, then played Solemn Simulacrum and Vine Trellis. I got out a quick Ninja of the Deep Hours thanks to Soratami Cloudskater and used Mystic Restraints on the Simulacrum. Soratami Mirror-Guard added to the offense, and by the time my opponent cast Darksteel Colossus with his armada of mana, I could bounce it with Mistblade Shinobi. He conceded with me at twenty life. Oddly enough, I felt in control most of the game, though I wished I had a few more counterspells in the deck in case he had drawn a Tooth and Nail.

Game 9: Monogreen Rhox deck

His deck used Rhox and Lone Wolf, alongside Giant Growth, Predator's Strike, and Might of Oaks. He had Viridian Shaman in there too, which seemed like a good move even in the new Standard. I had to cast a Walker of Secret Ways on the third turn in hopes of using one of the two Ninja of the Deep Hours in my hand. My opponent meanwhile was eating into my life, then went to empty his hand when it looked like I was about to gain control of the game. His massive creature-pumpers dropped me to four life, but that was where I stayed as Mistblade Shinobi, Ninja of the Deep Hours, Genju of the Falls, and Teardrop Kami each took turns with their Ronin Warclub. Mystic Restraints kept Rhox in check and I was able to win the game from there.

Game 10: Red/Black Burn

My opponent used Battle-Mad Ronin and lots of burn like Shock, Volcanic Hammer, and Lightning Blast. His black allowed him access to Rend Flesh and Barter in Blood. He emptied his hand to stave off my early onslaught, but I was still able to sneak Higure, the Still Wind in for the first time, which in turn grabbed a Ninja of the Deep Hours. He killed Higure and I never cast my Ninja, since both Genju of the Falls showed up to end the game with a few swings. On the turn before he died, my opponent cast Furnace of Rath (shudder).

Okay, pause and reflect. I don't mean to be a downer, but there is no way my deck is a 9-1 deck at this point. I guarantee that at some point later in this experiment that I'll go on a comparable losing streak with an improved decklist. Magic is like that sometimes. I mean, I like the auspicious omen and everything for my inaugural stint in this column, but sheesh!

A couple more quick changes of cards that are driving me nuts...

OUT: 2 Kaijin of the Vanishing Touch

Why, oh why, would a deck that wants to send unblocked attackers into the red zone want a creature that can't attack? I've appreciated the Kaijin's ability to mess up creatures like Slith Firewalker or an enchanted creature, but this deck doesn't need defense that badly, especially defense that doesn't fly and can't survive a three-damage burn spell. Keep in mind that Wall of Air costs just one more mana and it can kill stuff. For this deck, I would rather have a counterspell, or bounce, or another quick attacker, or... or... pretty much anything that doesn't have defender.

OUT: 1 Minamo's Meddling

I don't begrudge the deck having counterspells, but this one isn't it. In Kamigawa Block, where splicing happens with abandon, I can see it work. But this deck needs low-cost spells, which means Hisoka's Defiance might be a better choice for that format. In Standard, I would rather use things like Mana Leak, Condescend, Hinder, and Vex. If I'm going to spend four mana, give me Quash, Rewind or Last Word, but frankly I don't think I want a four-mana counter.

OUT: 2 Minamo Sightbender

I wanted to like Minamo Sightbender. I certainly understand its purpose in the deck, at least. It makes creatures unblockable, after all, and Ninjas love unblocked creatures. But in practice it's not an offensive threat, it can't use its ability the turn it comes into play, and it costs too much mana over the long run if you also need mana for ninjutsu. Besides, most of my creatures already have flying and I'm already tapping blockers, so his ability always feels redundant to me. It's not a bad idea, but there are hordes of cards I'd want to use instead.

IN: 2 Teardrop Kami

The product insert tells me that I should add more Teardrop Kami if given the chance, so more Teardrop Kami I shall add. One of the things I hate about cards like Teardrop Kami is that it just doesn't seem good enough a card to have four in my deck, but since I want to play it reliably on the first turn I can't justify less than four. It's a necessary evil for weenie decks to use creatures that look silly on their own, but it still makes me cringe a bit.

IN: 3 Condescend

Like I said, I'm not against counterspells on principle, and in fact think they're great for a blue weenie deck. I'm trying Condescend because a) it's cheap, and b) scry is something that can really help a deck digging for a constant stream of creatures. It's my first non-Kamigawa spell, pushing things like Mana Leak, Spiketail Hatchling, Sage Owl, Ornithopter, Trinket Mage, and Echoing Truth out of the way to make an appearance.

I hate to be abrupt, but thanks to a longer-than-usual introduction (this being my first day on the job, and all), I'll stop there. Next week I'll pick it up with version 1.2 for more change-play-change-play Ninja action. Stay tuned, discuss on the Message Boards, and enjoy!

-jms

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