Building_on_a_Budget

Choosing one of three paths

Spirit Flames: The Allure of Lure

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The letter I!ronically, I started thinking of some pretty spiffy ways to take my Spirit Flames deck as a Standard deck. I had visions of either making a “board-sweeping” deck with Pyroclasm, Fecundity, Arashi, Jiwari, and my soulshift dudes or an Ashes of the Fallen deck with Eternal Witness, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Viridian Shaman and who knows what else. You all, however, had different ideas:

What format will JMS's Spirit Flames deck be?
Kamigawa Block 4766 67.9%
Standard 2252 32.1%
Total 7018 100.0%

This result doesn't surprise me, actually, since I had figured the combined force of post-Regionals burnout, KBC qualifier season, Saviors rounding out the block, and 9th Edition looming would push people into caring more about Kamigawa Block than Standard. It's good to know that I didn't forge out on my own and force a Standard deck just because it's my favorite format.

Ah, the Kamigawa Block qualifier season. I've received several e-mails asking me to please turn one of these preconstructed decks into a tournament quality deck. That is, these folks want to know how to compete in Friday Night Magic or qualify for the Pro Tour without dipping too heavily into their bank accounts. I can't help but think some of you voted for KBC in hopes of discovering a viable budget KBC deck for competitive play.

I think the viability of budget decks in serious tournaments is surely the focus of an Interlude one of these days, especially since my opinion might be pretty controversial. How's this: Not only do I promise to dedicate an Interlude to the topic, I also hereby promise to turn one of these future series into a tournament-focused deck as an experiment (my guess is that I'll do this for States).

In the meantime, I think everyone should set their expectations that while my final decks can usually romp in the Casual Decks room of Magic Online, they are not built for tournaments (BOAB Smackdown! notwithstanding). My goal has been and will remain to be making fun, respectable, budget decks. Although the KBC qualifier season is upon us, you should look to Mike Flores, BDM, Scott Wills, Zvi (welcome aboard, Zvi!) or the numerous tournament strategy websites out there for how to make it to the Pro Tour. You should look to me to get tips on card evaluations, general deckbuilding principles, and, above all, fun budget decks.

Speaking of budget decks, here is where I left off last week with my modified Spirit Flames deck:

Now that I know the deck will be Kamigawa Block Constructed, I feel more comfortable thinking about changes on the horizon. On one hand, I'm a little intimidated by KBC. I have visions of big dragons, big legends, and Jittes as far as the eye can see. On the other hand, KBC is a format I haven't really thought about since Champions of Kamigawa, so I'm excited to see what new and creative decks are out there.

In fact, let's play some of those new and creative decks to see what's what...

Game 11: Green/White Wisdom

Battle of the 1/1s! I got out a quick Promised Kannushi and my opponent played a Descendant of Masumaro. He used Sensei's Divining Top to put an extra card in hand, then knocked me down to eighteen with his 2/2 critter. During my next attack, I spliced a Glacial Ray onto an Unchecked Growth. He used Kodama's Might to save his Descendant, but I still hit him with my 5/5 Kannushi. His Descendant grew to 4/4 and smacked me, so on my next turn I chanelled Ghost-Lit Raider to kill it. Then my Spirit Parade began, with Forked-Branch Garami, Burr Grafter and Hana Kami swarming on the attack. Umezawa's Jitte did indeed show up on his side of the table, but despite the Top and Kodama's Reach, my opponent could only find two Haru-Onna that I could Glacial Ray away.

Game 12: Black/Green Discard

For some reason I kept a hand with five Forests and two Promised Kannushi. Predictably, then, I had a slow start. I did manage to draw a Ghost-Lit Nourisher, but when my opponent played Infernal Kirin I thought it was better to play it than hold it in hand. Kemuri-Onna followed, so I started discarding land to his two 3/3 beasties. My Nourisher eventually died to Kiku's Shadow, but all the while my Kannushi were attacking. I killed the Kirin with an Unchecked Growth, then killed the Kemuri-Onna with Ghost-Lit Raider. Thwap, thwap, thwap went the Kannushi, and a topdecked Glacial Ray finished the game.

Game 13: Green/White Wisdom

My opponent's deck used Long-Forgotten Gohei, Kodama's Reach, and Kiyomaro, First to Stand, among other things. I came out with a third-turn Ghost-Lit Raider. When I saw he was playing Green/White, I decided to go for the quick kill without fear of creature removal. On Turn 4 I attacked for six via a channeled Ghost-Lit Nourisher. On Turn 5 I attacked for six via an Unchecked Growth. On Turn 6 I attacked for eight via Strength of Cedars and Promised Kannushi (my opponent had out Kiyomaro but decided not to block, probably hoping to get seven cards in hand and recoup life next turn). That was game.

Game 14: Red/Blue Spirits

I played a third-turn Kodama's Reach, then Elder Pine of Jukai. My opponent, meanwhile, played land after land, then Kiri-Onna once to bounce my Spirit. I replayed it, then Hana Kami to nab three land into my hand. After that I played Unchecked Growth to eat into his life (and nab more land), then another Unchecked Growth (ditto). He played Sire of the Storm to return his Kiri-Onna, and on my next turn I spliced Glacial Ray onto Strength of Cedars. He bounced my creature to counter my spell, but I played another Elder Pine of Jukai. A flurry of recursed Glacial Rays and Hana Kamis later, my opponent was dead.

This is fun! No Nezumi Graverobbers, Samurai of the Pale Curtain, Meloku the Clouded Mirror, Kokusho, the Evening Star, or Umezawa's Jitte anywhere! The decks look actually homegrown, with people exploring the mechanics in Saviors. Wheee!

Game 15: Monoblack Beatdown

My opponent mulliganed to five cards, then got stuck on two Swamps for a few turns. His slow start allowed me to play Ghost-Lit Raider, then Jiwari, the Earth Aflame to go on the attack. He played O-Naginata, then Eradicated my Jiwari. I untapped, spliced Kodama's Might onto Strength of Cedars, then played my Might to pump Ghost-Lit Raider to 13/12 for the win. I was supposed to inform everyone that my opponent was land shy for this game, so there you go.

In Hopes Of Melting Jittes

The deck is playing okay, and I'm still enjoying all of the freaky interactions. In the last three games, the deck almost felt like a combo deck with all of its crazy “pump that, pump that, burn that, splice that, pump that” nonsense. What I particularly like about it is that I can go on the all-out blitz against slower opponents as in Game 13, or I can grind out a card-advantage win with soulshift and chanellers. The problem, of course, is that the deck is still pretty inconsistent, meaning I don't always have the aggro or control option if the cards don't line up just right. As a result, it's time to make some more changes.

OUT: 2 Kami of the Tended Garden

4/4 is a respectable set of stats for a four-mana creature, especially one with only a single colored mana in its cost. Soulshift 3 is mighty good in my deck, too, able to return my Ghost-Lit fellows, Elder Pine of Jukai, and Hana Kami, among others. The whole package is ruined, though, with the upkeep cost of Green Mana. I appreciate the trickiness of letting my Kami die in order to revive something from the graveyard, but Burr Grafter and Rootrunner can do this at instant speed. Are the extra power and toughness worth the upkeep cost? In practice, I don't think so. In fact, if you look back at least week you'll see that the upkeep cost often tied up my mana when I needed to cast another green--or, worse yet, a double-green--card. The folks on the Message Boards seem to agree, as many people predicted Kami of the Tended Garden's demise.

OUT: 1 Rending Vines

A deck with exactly one card that can handle any opposing artifacts and enchantments is a Bad Thing. So why am I dropping that lone card? As you'll see, I think there are better answers for my deck. The fact is that while my Elder Pine of Jukai and soulshift will occasionally boost my hand size, for the most part my deck is getting rid of cards quickly rather than adding them. Besides, Rending Vines has a Green ManaGreen Mana mana requirement, which can be a pain for my deck. I think any Green deck focused on the wisdom mechanic can make great use of Rending Vines, but my deck is first and foremost a Spirits/soulshift deck.

IN: 4 Hearth Kami

Hearth Kami
Just because I've only seen one Umezawa's Jitte doesn't mean I should be unprepared for them. I'm in Kamigawa Block land now, a land where the Jitte is king. I imagine that as people start playing the format more and as Pro Tour: LA Qualifiers decklists become available, I will get awfully sick of seeing Umezawa's Very Special Fork. Hearth Kami is a decent answer, especially for a deck focused on Soulshift.

That's three cards out and four cards in. Now it's time to start making some tough choices.

OUT: 1 Frostling

Here is where the character of my deck starts to get defined. It's an aggressive deck, but it's not a deck that is suicidally aggressive. It's a Red deck, but it's not a deck that can reliably cast a first-turn Red creature. It's a soulshift deck, but it's a deck that wants to do more impressive things than ping a creature. Frostling is a fine creature, able to kill things like Nezumi Graverobber and a variety of opposing Spirits. At the same time, it's really meant for a hyper-aggressive deck focused on dealing twenty damage as fast as possible whereas my deck is more utility beatdown. Anyway, my deck has lots of removal in the form of Glacial Ray, Arashi, Jiwari, and Ghost-Lit Raider, not to mention surprise combat tricks that moonlight as creature removal. These options simply outshine Frostling in my deck.

The deck is already a lot more consistent than the original version, though obviously far from perfect. Here is where I stand right now:

More testing, here I come...

Game 16: Red/Black Ogres

Choice of Damnations
A nice guy, he started with a quick Frostling and Hearth Kami. I used Glacial Ray on the Kami, then played Kodama's Reach, and used a second Ray on the Frostling. I tried to go on the offensive with Ghost-Lit Raider, but it died to Yamabushi's Flame (no soulshift for him, sadly). My opponent played Raving Oni-Slave and took three damage. I played Forked-Branch Garami. He then played a sad 1/1 Kagemaro, First to Suffer. I channeled Jiwari, the Earth Aflame for three, then attacked with my Garami. Another Oni-Slave showed up (with another three damage tacked on), while I played a second Reach and a second Garami. My opponent tried Choice of Damnations, but I was high enough on life to choose “seven” and still stomp in for the victory.

Game 17: Green/Red Combo

I thought my opponent was playing the same deck as me when he went Forest, Mountain, Shinen of Life's Roar. I got out a Promised Kannushi and Hearth Kami. He was reluctant to let his Shinen die, so I bluffed my two creatures through several attacks until they eventually died to double Glacial Ray. Elder Pine of Jukai showed up on both of our sides, and we both thinned a lot of land with Kodama's Reach. When my opponent played Blood Rites, things started to look a little different. When he played Honden of Life's Web, they looked decidedly different. It turns out that my opponent had a combo deck built around In the Web of War and Rally the Horde. He had the Rally in hand, but despite several activations of Mikokoro, Center of the Sea he couldn't find a Web. Meanwhile I found two Forked-Branch Garami and pounded past blockers thanks to two channeled Ghost-Lit Raiders.

Game 18: Monowhite Spirit/Arcane

Candles' Glow
His deck was pretty neat. He got out two quick Lantern Kami to my Promised Kannushi. I bluffed creature pumping, which let my Kannushi survive several attacks. My opponent played Kabuto Moth, so I channeled Arashi, the Sky Asunder to clear his side of the board, then I played Forked-Branch Garami. He used Otherworldly Journey--splicing two Spiritual Visits--on my Garami while I chanelled a Ghost-Lit Nourisher on my Kannushi to thwack him. The next turn I used Strength of Cedars on my Kannushi to drop him to two life (he wasn't blocking so I wouldn't have access to Arashi). A Candles' Glow with double Spiritual Visit saved him a turn, but an Unchecked Growth ended the game on my next attack.

Game 19: Monoblack Ogres

I again got out a pesky Promised Kannushi whilst my opponent played two Ronin Warclubs. I held mana back so that when he played Ogre Marauder I killed it with Glacial Ray in response to the Warclubs' activations. When he played Takenuma Bleeder I did the same with a channeled Ghost-Lit Raider. He finally got a 7/3 Bloodthirsty Ogre, but now he didn't want to kill my Kannushi. When he let it through, I spliced Kodama's Might onto Unchecked Growth, then played Hearth Kami. My opponent Eradicated my Hearth Kami, seeing the Strength of Cedars in my hand. The next turn he blocked my Kannushi, while I used Kodama's Might to kill his Ogre and return my Raider. Then I played Forked-Branch Garami. My opponent drew a card, looked at his hand for a long while, then conceded.

Game 20: Green/Black Spirits

Kodama of the North Tree
Well, my win streak had to come to an end eventually. My opponent got out two quick Soilshapers to my Promised Kannushi and Hearth Kami. I killed one Soilshaper with my Kami, then another with Glacial Ray. He played an Elder Pine of Jukai, which I didn't block because of those dead Soilshapers. When he played Kodama of the North Tree, I thought I could stabilize since he was running out of cards in hand and I had just played Arashi, the Sky Asunder to trade with his Kodama. He spliced Horobi's Whisper onto Kodama's Might (targeting his Elder Pine), though, and that cleared my side of the board. A simple Devouring Greed later and I was dead.

From 4-6 last week to 9-1 this week. Magic is weird.

I'll Meet You At The Crossroads

After twenty games, I find myself at a crossroads. I'm struggling with three different paths for the deck in my head, all viable but all requiring different card choices. Path #1 ups the number of Shinen of Life's Roar, along with getting a full barrage of Unchecked Growth, Ghost-Lit Nourisher, and Burr Grafter. Path #2 also probably keeps Unchecked Growth, but drops the other stuff for more Hana Kami and spiritcraft triggers like Kami of the Hunt and Kodama of the South Tree. Path #3 adds the extra two Elder Pine of Jukai, along with Loam Dwellers and probably another Strength of Cedars. These are all Green/Red Spirit decks, and all care about soulshift in a major way. So which way should I go?

The second path is probably the most obvious. I think in general a lot of Green/Red Spirit decks want to start adding spiritcraft triggers, Kodama of the South Tree, and Hana Kami. Soulshift becomes more of a supporting theme to the bash, bash, bash intent of the deck. I'm not sure what happens with the chanellers, since they don't affect spiritcraft triggers and aren't great at bashing. Whatever the case, this time around I don't particularly want to make the most obvious deck, and I'm a little tired of straightforward beatdown decks.

The third path is neat, but I feel like it would involve undoing a lot of the choices I've already made. For example, with four Elder Pine of Jukai, Rending Vines probably makes more sense than Hearth Kami. Without Hearth Kami and with Rending Vines, do I need Red at all? Probably not, which makes adding the Loam Dwellers easier and makes room for things like Masumaro, First to Live, Haru-Onna, and maybe a Time of Need or two. Like I said, I'm wandering away from some of my initial ideas and taking if not a right turn then at least a veer in the road. That's not necessarily a bad thing if I don't like my other options.

But then there's that first path.

Shinen of Life's Roar
Shinen of Life's Roar didn't stand out to me much in the initial decklist. I certainly wouldn't look at Spirit Flames and think about building a deck around him. Still, I've always liked Lure and have--like a lot of people, I think--pondered the merits of a Lure-based deck. Spirit Flames happens to set up the tools to try it out: An inordinate amount of creature-pumping, an ability to recycle dead creatures, and with a channeled Shinen a way to intentionally kill something like a Promised Kannushi to get the cards I need back from the graveyard.

So let's go for it. Let's see if a deck can succeed at all when Lure is one of its main strategies.

IN: 3 Shinen of Life's Roar

For some reason I think three is the right number of Shinen in my deck, even though I want to make it a central theme. That's not based in reality or any data, though, and the best way to test the viability of a card is to get four into my deck and see what happens during games. In theory, at least, a Shinen should wreak havoc with an opponent as long as I have an Unchecked Growth or Ghost-Lit Nourisher in hand or a Burr Grafter on the table. Later in the game, I should be able to channel my Shinen on a Promised Kannushi or Forked-Branch Garami to ensure I get needed cards back from the graveyard, or just channel a Shinen on some dinky creature to let my fat creatures romp in for the win. That's the theory, anyway.

IN: 2 Unchecked Growth

Unchecked Growth
Given my above theory, it makes an awful lot of sense to include a full four Unchecked Growth. With the Growth, my Shinen becomes a 5/6 trampling beatstick that must be blocked. Unchecked Growth is also obviously great on any of my attacking Spirits, is a splice target for Glacial Ray, and is something Hana Kami can fetch back to use. All in all, I would say Unchecked Growth is the single best Giant Growth-like effect available to my deck.

OUT: 1 Kodama's Might
OUT: 1 Strength of Cedars

...Stronger, in fact, than both Kodama's Might and Strength of Cedars. Kodama's Might is cheaper, obviously, but it has a smaller effect and doesn't give trample so I'm pretty sure even Child of Thorns would be better for a soulshifting deck. Strength of Cedars is tougher to drop because it can end games in such a hurry, but I don't think my deck is going to be about amassing land on the table, which makes it rarely a lot better than Unchecked Growth. Again, the lack of trample is a real bummer here.

At this point it's worth pondering how much creature pumping is appropriate for a Lure deck. Right now I have eight cards: four Unchecked Growth, two Ghost-Lit Nourisher, and two Burr Grafter. The Unchecked Growth are in there for pure power and the other two are in there because of their synergy with all of the other things the deck can do. Should I go up to four copies of the Nourisher and/or Grafter? Do I want more than eight total options (recall that the original decklist had twelve)? These are questions to keep in my mind throughout the next games.

OUT: 2 Elder Pine of Jukai

Elder Pine of Jukai
I'll probably catch some flak for this one. Elder Pine of Jukai can get insane if you rely on the wisdom mechanic at all, can help ensure land drops throughout the game, and it has soulshift 2 which can bring back Shinen of Life's Roar. So why drop it? The biggest reason, I think, is that my new focus on the Shinen means the deck doesn't actually need a lot of land. Dropping Strength of Cedars emphasized this point as well. I've also dropped all remnants of the wisdom mechanic mattering to my deck. That makes Elder Pine of Jukai a 2/1 with soulshift for three mana. That's pretty ineffecient, and I can do better. The final straw for me, though, is that I only have Kodama's Reach as a way of shuffling my deck, so if I see Arashi or Jiwari get put on the bottom of my deck, for example, I will likely never see them again and I'll know it. My decision is either to make Elder Pine matter more (land, wisdom, and shuffling tricks) or drop it altogether. By far the path of least resistance is to drop it.

OUT: 1 Kodama's Reach

Hana Kami is still hanging in there as a single copy, Glacial Ray is still in the deck, and I have six five-mana Spirits that can change games. All of these are reasons to keep Kodama's Reach, not to mention the mana-fixing I need in a two-color deck. I'm not sure I need four copies, though, so consider this an experiment. If I can get away with twenty-four land (or less), no Elder Pines, and three Reaches in my new “I don't think I need land as badly as I thought” deck, then great. This sucker may be coming back into the deck, but I want to see if I can function without it.

Game 21: Blue/Red Ire of Kaminari deck

Dampen Thought
I got off to a pitifully slow start, with Promised Kannushi and Hana Kami my only offense in a sea of land. Eventually Forked-Branch Garami joined the fray, followed by Jiwari, the Earth Aflame. It was all too slow, though, as my opponent hit me with Lava Spikes and spliced Dampen Thought to fill up his own graveyard. On the turn before I would deal lethal damage, he hit me with Ire of Kaminari to send me to -2 life. Nothing like starting my Lure deck off against a creatureless deck, eh?

Game 22: Monoblack Aggro

This was a scary game I was sure I would lose. He started off with a Hand of Cruelty and Takenuma Bleeder. My Hearth Kami blocked his Bleeder, then I played Kodama's Reach to get to five mana. I then played Arashi, the Sky Asunder while my opponent found another Hand and a Raving Oni Slave. He then used Sink into Takenuma to clear all of his land and empty my hand of five quality cards. We stared at each other for a while, him looking for a Demon and me looking for anything to save me. He used two more Sink into Takenuma, once forcing me to use Unchecked Growth on my guy and once to Glacial Ray one of his Hands and Ghost-Lit Raider his Slave. By the time he played Razorjaw Oni, I had a Promised Kannushi and no cards in hand. The next turn he stole my Arashi with Mark of the Oni, then attacked with everything. I blocked his Razorjaw Oni with my Kannushi, getting back Ghost-Lit Raider to kill the Demon. I soulshifted Arashi and he paid another three life for a second Raving Oni-Slave. Then my deck decided to love me, and I topdecked Jiwari, the Earth Aflame. I chanelled Jiwari for three, which cleared his side of the board and allowed Arashi to romp in for the win. Whew.

Game 23: Monoblack Aggro

I guess this deck is popular. Anyway, my opponent got out a second-turn Hand of Cruelty, which I banished with Glacial Ray. I then got out Shinen of Life's Roar. He played an Umezawa's Jitte and I had no Hearth Kami in sight, but here's the cool bit: I could kill all of his creatures with the Shinen before he could equip. I killed Ogre Marauder with Unchecked Growth, Takenuma Bleeder with Burr Grafter, then another Marauder with a suicidal Shinen. My opponent was stuck on three Swamps with his Jitte and an O-Naginata. I played Jiwari, the Earth Aflame and a Hana Kami to go on the offensive. Hana Kami got back Glacial Ray to kill a third Marauder. By the time my Jiwari had won the game, my opponent showed me a hand of two Raving Oni-Slaves.

Game 24: Red/Green Combo deck

This guy's deck was similar to what my Game 17 opponent played, using In the Web of War to win in one fell swoop. I had a superb hand, casting a Turn 2 Shinen of Life's Roar, Turn 3 Kodama's Reach, Turn 4 Arashi, the Sky Asunder. Two Sakura-Tribe Elders blocked my Shinen while Arashi tromped in. My opponent then used Barrel Down Sokenzan to kill off Arashi, so I cast Jiwari, the Earth Aflame. In the Web of War followed, then Feral Lightning to drop me down to five life. He tapped out to do it, though. On the next turn I attacked with my Shinen and Jiwari, then used two Glacial Rays to win.

These last two games, I think, show how a Lure deck should function when it's humming.

Game 25: Monowhite Legends

Day of Destiny
In my last game of today, I got smacked around. My opponent's first four turns went Turn 2 Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, Turn 3 Opal-Eye, Konda's Yojimbo, Turn 4, Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Sensei Golden-Tail. Yikes. I held him off admirably thanks to some soulshifting shenanigans and the big body of Arashi, the Sky Asunder. I was even able to kill a bunch of guys thanks to Arashi, Burr Grafter, and a channeled Shinen of Life's Roar since he was playing very aggressively and tapping his Opal-Eye. When he dropped Day of Destiny, though, that was pretty much game. My opponent ended the game at twelve life, no matter how much I kept praying for Jiwari, the Earth Aflame to show up.

I'll stop there and pick it up next week. If you have ideas for my Lure deck or have a similar Kamigawa Block deck in hand, please: Share your thoughts on the Message Boards.

-jms

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